A film like The Painted Bird does not want to be ‘liked’. It wants to shock, to disgust, to viscerally move, to make you reconsider just how civilised mankind really is. Seeking such reactions is a gamble but, for my money, The Painted Bird succeeds, a repellent yet compelling and sledgehammer powerful anti-war fable.
Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial novel follows an unnamed Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) as he walks through WWII Eastern Europe trying to find his parents. Along the way, he meets countless primitive, freakish antagonists, with only a very occasional moment of grace.
The sheer litany of horrendous acts committed upon the boy and other unlucky souls will test your stomach, and for a long while watching it, you are convinced that Marhoul hadn’t earned such depravity without the emotion to back it up. Yet, once the credits roll, you find yourself utterly unable to move from your seat, the cumulative weight of the boy’s journey absolutely crushing. You have to make an effort to stick it out with The Painted Bird, but the payoff is devastatingly worth it.
Rare kindnesses land with extraordinary power, oases in a cruel desert that soothe the audience as much as the boy, and Kotlar gives an astounding performance – to point of concern for the young actor, given how much gruelling violence and sex goes on around him.
Marhoul’s mastery is unquestionable on a technical level. His black and white photography is stunning, especially the bright eyes peeking out in dark rooms, and every war scene is pulled off with what looks like impossible confidence and logistical skill.
Absolutely not for everyone, and very hard to outright recommend, The Painted Bird is a searing work of art that can be just as rewarding as it is harrowing.
CAST: Petr Kotlar, Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgard, Barry Pepper
DIRECTOR: Vaclav Marhoul
WRITERS: Vaclav Marhoul (screenplay), Jerzy Kosinski (novel)
SYNOPSIS: A young Jewish boy somewhere in Eastern Europe seeks refuge during World War II where he encounters many different characters.