The Painted Bird demands a great deal. Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul takes the novel by Jerzy Kosiński and sharpens it, creating an episodic parable about the horrors humankind inflicts on each other. There is the same basic structure to the book – set during World War 2, a boy from an unknown country wanders from caretaker to caretaker – except Marhoul also depicts borderline unspeakable acts of cruelty. No doubt that some viewers will not make it to the end, or even the first few minutes. But The Painted Bird is not thoughtless, and there is a greater purpose than a mere geek show.
Petr Kotlár plays the boy, who does not have a name for most of the film. He is staying with an elderly aunt, and the other boys in the village are cruel to him. The aunt is kind, in her own way, and she provides structure that many boys require. She dies unexpectedly, and the boy accidentally burns down her house. Left with no alternative, the boy wanders to a nearby village, where an “elder” spurns him as a “vampire Jew.” He does not last long with her, either, and this begins a series of episodes where debasement and cruelty are the default modes of expression. At first, the boy is passive and absorbs it all, bearing witness to spousal abuse, gang rape, and bestiality. Then the boy learns that he, too, can be violent and he becomes a thoughtless perpetrator in this ugliness.
I use the word “ugliness” because one irony of The Painted Bird is that is a beautiful-looking film. Marhoul and cinematographer Vladimír Smutný shot in 35mm in black and white celluloid, and each composition is rich. Except for a few flourishes late in the film, they opt for austere compositions, lingering on an image just long enough for the viewer to internalize it. Crucially, what they depict is not as horrifying as what we create in our imaginations. This is made clear in an early scene with Udo Kier, the longtime character actor who plays one of the boy’s caretakers. In a fit of violent jealousy, this man turns to his wife’s lover, and scoops out his eyes with a rusty spoon. Marhoul places the camera behind the victim immediately before the act happens, showing its messy aftermath and the boy who sees it all unfold. This technique is almost as old as cinema itself – Hitchcock famously used it in the Psycho shower scene – and it is crucial to the overall effect. If Marhoul was a sadist and shot in vivid color, it would be too much.
A lot of The Painted Bird is in dialogue with cinema history. Sometimes the film evokes other war films, like Elem Klimov’s Come and See, but a more intriguing thing is what Marhoul does with his actors. Udo Kier is not the only recognizable face here. There are also cameo appearances from Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård, and Barry Pepper. They have limited dialogue, and for the English-speaking actors, it is clearly dubbed in (The Painted Bird is the first film in an Interslavic language).
What matters more than mere stunt casting is what these faces provoke: Keitel plays a priest in this film, and there is an echo to the character he played in Mean Streets. The same can be said of Sands’ previous work, although nothing is more deliberate than Pepper, who plays a Soviet sniper. He is a bizarro version of his Saving Private Ryan character, right down to the methodical way he vanquishes his enemy (albeit while being a godless Red). These references are almost like a game, or an opportunity to intellectualize a film that can be quite visceral. Relying on film history is a way to conjure additional reflection, a reminder that cruelty does not come out of nowhere. In a lawless time when occupied people had nothing left, they really turned on each other like this. It was probably worse.
The boy in The Painted Bird starts as a cipher, and his blank face is an opportunity to see in him whatever you want. Once the boy finds himself in his horrible cycle, the film clicks more into focus and there is an intentionality that was lacking in the meandering, episodic structure. Kotlár, who plays the boy, is believable as an innocent who warps into a violent creature of raw instinct. This is not a feel-good film, although it is an honest in a way that always eludes last year’s Jojo Rabbit. There is some hope in The Painted Bird, but it is as ephemeral as the way it finally appears. If Taika Waititi wants to wave away wartime atrocities with dancing and David Bowie, Václav Marhoul realizes that honest acknowledgment is the only way to begin any genuine reckoning.
The Painted Bird is available to stream through your preferred VOD platform starting Friday, July 17.