Right off the bat, perhaps the most important thing to know about The Painted Bird is that a spoon-assisted eye-gouging (soundtracked by two mating cats) doesn’t even make the top ten atrocities thrown at the audience by Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial novel. This is a nasty, punishing film, desiring more to provoke and disgust than to be liked. A lot of it is repellent, and if one were to despise it, that would be completely understandable. Yet, come its ending, I found myself utterly overwhelmed by its crushing power, even through the plenty of doubts I had along the way.
Following an unnamed young Jewish boy (Petr Koltar) as he walks home through unspecified Eastern European countries in the latter years of World War 2, The Painted Bird looks a world rendered grotesque, primitive, and freakish by violence and deprivation. Though the boy is at least in part based on real experiences, he, through his ordeals, takes on a mythic position, Job and Jesus rolled into one, suffering for the myriad sins of the Eastern Front, as well as being a walking, talking metaphor for the Holocaust. Though the actual plot is limited, each new chapter brings a whole new set of supporting characters, which helps the three hour runtime actually feel pretty brisk.
Though most of the people the boy encounters are at best antagonistic and at worst outright savages, he does encounter the occasional kind soul, and these moments are all the more powerful for the horror they interrupt. Marhoul’s initially confusing decision to cast (and then dub over) non-Slavic actors in these talismanic roles makes magnificent sense in practice, the familiarity of the faces of, for example, Stellan Skarsgard, Barry Pepper, and Harvey Keitel instantly relaxing the audience. After hours in the company of Nazis, Cossacks, and ogre-ish rapists, these more ‘Hollywood’ visuals are like oases, as much a relief for viewers as they are for the boy.
Though the film’s content may prove unjustifiable for some (and almost did for me before the credits rolled), Marhoul’s technical mastery is unquestionable. His black and white photography is grand, sweeping, and gorgeous, filled with imposing landscapes and bright eyes in dark rooms. Meanwhile, every mob or war scene is pulled off with an almost impossible level of confidence and logistical genius, a Cossack raid of a village transforming into a pitched battle with tanks and planes in a truly mind-boggling sequence.
Though it’s hard not to feel concerned for the young actor during some particularly heinous scenes, Koltar gives an unbelievable performance in the lead, every trauma pushing him deeper into darkness. Marhoul shot for a couple of years, with Koltar ageing in front of your eyes, transforming just as the war continually changes the world around him (though violent anti-semitism is a constant). These changes are gradual, not immediately obvious in the moment, but it’s overall impact is startling.
I can’t in all good conscience recommend The Painted Bird, and even if you think you know what you’re in for, it may well prove too tough to stick with it all the way. If you can, however, it’s a searing and profound experience (albeit one I don’t exactly feel the need to ever revisit), one that makes just an ounce of hope feel as significant as all its horrors put together. It rewards as much as it harrows, a staggering achievement for a film as brutal as this.