Painted Bird, The (2019)

Not for the faint-hearted, this highly-disturbing and extremely grim film about a boy’s experience of Eastern Europe during WWII packs a powerful, almost surreal punch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Vaclav Marhoul
2019 | Czech Republic | Drama/War | 169 mins | 2.39:1 | Czech, German, Russian & Latin
Not rated (likely to exceed R21 guidelines)

Cast: Petr Kotlar, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel
Plot: A young Jewish boy somewhere in Eastern Europe seeks refuge during World War II where he encounters many different characters.
Awards: Won UNICEF Award & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
International Sales: Celluloid Dreams

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Mature/Highly Disturbing
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse

Viewed: Screener
Spoilers: No

Not many will be able to make it through this harrowing film, which is the Czech Republic’s official submission to the Oscars for Best International Feature.  It also competed for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the UNICEF Award.  

The Painted Bird is not just one of the most disturbing films in recent memory and certainly not for the faint-hearted, but also an extremely grim portrait of a boy’s experience as he journeys through Eastern Europe during WWII. 

Structured like a series of ‘short films’ that sees the boy meet various people living in various villages and towns that have been affected by the war, Vaclav Marhoul’s film is probably a natural companion piece to Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), another equally harrowing if stronger work. 

The people in The Painted Bird are unbelievably nasty, save for Harvey Keitel who plays a priest, and a cameo as a Nazi by Stellan Skarsgard.  You get to see the worst of humanity as people inflict unspeakable torture on others; some even commit incest and bestiality.  Most of these depraved folks aren’t bloodthirsty Nazis but (surprise!) normal civilians. 

The film gained notoriety due to numerous walkouts at its Venice world premiere.

Perhaps this is how one might find deeper meaning to Marhoul’s unflinchingly brutal film—that the worst victims are those who were once sane but have entirely lost their sense of morality, not from the giddiness of untamed power, but the enduring physical and psychological torment of war. 

It’s very beautifully shot, with composed black-and-white cinematography that gives a sense of poetic fatalism, packing a powerful, almost surreal punch. 

At this point, one might appreciate the fact that The Painted Bird is an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name.  Said to be an autobiographical account of the author’s wartime experiences, Kosinski courted controversy in his later years when it was revealed that parts of the novel were plagiarised. 

This, to me, is fascinating; does this mean that Marhoul’s assumedly faithful adaptation is a largely imaginative piece, thus functioning as an allegory?  Do the atrocities in the film, then, become symbolic—and if so, does this make it any easier to watch? 

There have been many motion pictures about the dehumanisation and hopelessness of war, but this one goes to great lengths (and at nearly three hours long, it is a rather mammoth film to undertake) to make it as visceral as possible.

Grade: A-



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