C/W for both article and film: Graphic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, animal cruelty, substance abuse, self-harm, depictions of war, suicide, genocide.
Imagine you paint the wings of a bird before you let it fly from your hand. As you watch it join all the other birds of its kind, they attack it relentlessly until it falls back to the ground, dead at your feet. This is one of the most powerful films that I have seen for a long time. This film undermines the idea of rating a film out of 5 stars; I hated every second of it and I hope that I will never have to watch it again, but it was so moving and brutal in its message that I couldn’t draw myself away from the screen and I couldn’t stop thinking about it hours after I watched it. The only way you could watch this without wincing every 10 minutes is if you have a steel crate for a heart and a blunt stone for a stomach. My approach to this film is similar to that of Schindler’s List in the sense that you may not want to watch it, nor are you likely to watch it again, but you definitely should.
This film has inspired extreme reactions of all types since its release in the Toronto, Venice, and London film festivals of 2019, causing several walkouts each time but igniting a standing ovation at the Warsaw film festival. Regardless, it has been deemed as a potent film that has a terrifyingly fervent command over its audience.
Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird (an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński) follows the story of a boy in Eastern Europe who has been left with his aunt Marta for a reason we do not know. When she suddenly dies, the boy is tossed into an odyssey where he encounters only the utmost cruelty at every turn. He is accused of being a gypsy, Jewish, or even a vampire in one village and he is tortured and abused in many ways. He rarely encounters kindness from the adults he comes across and the brutality is definitely non-partisan: he is forced to drink vodka, taken to snipe villagers by Soviet soldiers, and then ordered to be shot by Nazis (one of whom being Stellan Skarsgård) to name just a few of the awful things that happen to the boy. When he is thrown into a pool of manure by more villagers, he becomes mute and he doesn’t seem to remember his own name anymore.
The dialogue is scarce in this film, the vast majority of the plot unfolding before our eyes in silence. Everything just happens, there’s no preamble or build-up to the atrocities that are inflicted on the boy, they simply occur without any rhyme or rhythm. We follow the boy’s own reaction to his treatment from others: we don’t become angry, we don’t cry, and we don’t indignantly question why they are doing what they’re doing. We just grow numb and complacent as all we learn to expect from the characters is abuse, torture, and exploitation. This is where we really see Petr Kotlár (who plays the boy) shine as he so mercilessly displays the initial shock and misery that comes from his encounters with these characters until he gives us only vacant, unfeeling stares or wrathful 20-yard stares.
This film is rootless, I couldn’t say how much time had passed between events or where they are exactly in Eastern Europe, it could be set in Czechoslovakia or Poland, the only clues you might have are the rural cultures of the villages which I am not familiar with at all (although Marhoul does make some subtle differentiation between them) or which places are occupied by Nazi or Soviet troops. Marhoul deliberately made this the first feature-length film to include the Interslavic language (as well as Czech, Russian, and German) because he didn’t want people in Eastern Europe to identify with the film within their national borders, which I think is a remarkably powerful and considerate move to make. No one has a monopoly on human cruelty, and regardless of which country he might have been in, the damage is done and all you can see is how war and daily bloodshed ground down on the psyche of all its characters.
It is no surprise that all of the monstrous events that happen to the boy eventually make him turn to cruelty to survive. I started tearing up as his childlike love of animals deteriorates into him beheading a goat, stealing the shoes from the corpse of a Jewish boy, and even killing a man that hurt him. We see only a slither of hope by the end of a gruelling 3 hours of the different genres of suffering the boy undergoes. The few letters that the boy writes in the condensation of a coach window lets us know that despite his inability to speak, his uprooting, and everything that happens to him, there is still the slightest glimmer of hope. It has been only through the merciless trials and inhumanity that we are allowed even the slightest chance of redemption, seamlessly capturing the one sentence that runs across the UK and Ireland poster for The Painted Bird: light is only visible in the dark.
The Painted Bird, directed by Václav Marhoul, is distributed in the UK via Eureka Entertainment, certificate 18. It’s out now in cinemas and available to stream via Amazon, Curzon Home Cinema, and other VOD platforms.
Watch the trailer below: