Less than two minutes into its nearly three hours, The Painted Bird tells you exactly what kind of movie you’re in for. The film opens with a young boy (Petr Kotlár) sprinting through the woods with a pet ferret cradled in his arms. Other boys, older and crueler, are on his tail. And when they catch up, they promptly knock his front teeth out and then burn his pet alive right in front of him. Things do not improve for the boy from here. In fact, by the conclusion of this ravishing meditation on humanity’s capacity for evil, the memory of the experience might count, relatively speaking, as one of his happiest. Things can always get worse, The Painted Bird insists. Is there a more 2020 sentiment than that?
“It’s your fault,” the boy’s elderly aunt and guardian tells him when he returns home, bloody and petless. But that’s no matter, because she’s dead in her chair within a few minutes. Next the house goes, swallowed by flames, and suddenly the young man is alone and homeless, forced to cross an inhospitable world in search of sanctuary. Within minutes, he’s wrapped in a burlap bag and whipped by superstitious villagers, screaming in an Interslavic language (the first use of such a language in cinematic history) of the evil they believe has possessed him. The boy will from here, be threatened, throttled, overworked, dangled from the rafters, buried up to his neck in dirt, pecked by ravens, and much, much worse.
It’s, clearly, a lot. It’s a marathon of murder, mutilation, rape, and pedophilia. The Holocaust itself is basically a subplot: Though the landscapes and lifestyles at times look downright medieval (thanks to Jan Vlasák’s transportive production design), the film actually unfolds across Eastern Europe circa the Second World War, occasionally drifting from the main story to dramatize Holocaust events. (We eventually learn that the boy’s parents disappeared when the Third Reich reached their doorstep.) This episodic misery comes from the acclaimed and controversial novel of the same title by Jerzy Kosinski, yet the only novelistic device in play when it comes to the film is its series of nine chapter headings dividing the film’s episodic structure. Each are titles after the various adults into whose alleged care our young protagonist falls over the course of his arduous trek. Yet no names or other such niceties are uttered on screen in the course of the narrative: The Painted Bird offers a vision of war-ragged society in which all survivors have been reduced to anonymous, animalistic beings, drained of feeling or empathy.
Strange as it is to say about a movie that runs one-hundred-and-seventy-minutes, The Painted Bird is economical, in its own exhausting way. Director Václav Marhoul keeps everything chugging along, from one injustice to the next, each step of the journey sketched in quick, harsh brushstrokes. Appearing among the ensemble of incredible wearied European countenances are some other beautiful but more familiar faces, each belonging to an international movie star: Stellan Skarsgård as a merciful Nazi, Harvey Keitel as a kindly but oblivious priest, Barry Pepper as a steely sniper, and Julian Sands as a creepy churchgoer. But those familiar faces don’t put any blasé on the severity of the abuse depicted: Marhoul’s aim seems to be to leave viewers numbed rather than shocked by these obscene violations, rather as everyone on screen — and eventually, the boy himself — have been desensitized by years of such agony.
Stylistically, one might think of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr. But more directly what comes to mind is Elem Klimov’s Come and See, a masterpiece of ceaselessly harrowing drama of contemporaneous atrocity — the rare war movie that’s unquestionably anti-war (in fact, Marhoul even gives Aleksei Kravchenko, the young lead of Come and See, a small role). The thing is, that film both brought the violence but also a psychological palette to its grim circumstances. The Painted Bird‘s one (and maybe only) struggle is just that, as the film often hovers at a distance. Our protagonist is almost entirely silent, a resilient husk — more a cipher than a full character, a shambling embodiment of shattered innocence. While in the novel he delivers some first-person impressions on the cruelty, the boy’s most defining trait, in the film, is his affection for animals. So naturally, and from a storytelling point understandably, he will rigorously and methodically be disabused of such a trait; on top of all the human casualties, The Painted Bird brings a pile of animal corpses, from snapping horse necks to — in the metaphoric moment that provides the film its title — sending a marked bird into a flock that takes it for an intruder and forces it to drop from the sky. Which all leads to the reshaped moment of a goat beheading.
All of this agony, though, is captured with incredible skill, pushing the film to an inarguably effective and immersive quality, its hard unyielding gaze backed up by the muscularity of its craft. Shot on ravishing 35mm black-and-white with expansive anamorphic lenses, Vladimír Smutný’s cinematography in The Painted Bird unquestionably pushes the film to must-see territory; the clean-lined elegance of his compositions — which often render human scuffles small against expansive natural backdrops — evoke a disinterested world that will endure whatever our burdened protagonist’s fate. The images seemingly tease the audience into gazing with wonder upon its silvery, shadow-streaked rural tableaux before repeatedly confronting them with images far harsher to face with open eyes. Marhoul’s searing display of such savagery is one that creates a logic of its own; where death and destruction is all that you know — depicting a region rocked so much by war that its core has become a melting down psychosexual radiation engulfing the stark countryside. The Painted Bird plumbs the depths, but rest assured that those hardy souls who trudge through the course are rewarded with the smallest glimmer of hope. Which takes the form of a few lines drawn on a dusty bus window. It’s after nearly three hours in hell that a lone crumb of comfort like that can look and feel like a banquet. A mesmeric hellscape of human suffering, cruelty, and depravity, The Painted Bird is a film that displays the worst of humanity and aims to bruise the soul, and it does so with breathtaking, uncompromising artistry.
The Painted Bird is available on VOD