Writer and Director: Václav Marhoul
There are some films you should watch because they’re fun, entertaining or escapist, a chance to shake off everyday life for a time, but there are others that teach you something about the world we live in, and however tough to watch, these film provide strong reactions, not least a recognition of the bubble in which we live. Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, a 2 hour and 45-minute epic, is one such film; hard going, intense and horrifying; it is a film you will never forget.
A boy has been sent to live with his aunt somewhere on a remote farm in Eastern Europe but when circumstances change the orphaned child sets out on a journey “home” not knowing exactly where that is. Along the way and over the course of a year or so, the boy encounters a series of fellow travellers, peasants and soldiers all of whom create an indelible impression, exploiting his trust and his childhood.
Marhoul’s film is the slow brutalisation of a child as bit by bit his innocence, hope and eventually his humanity is stripped from him. The Painted Bird opens with the Boy’s pet stoat burned to death and within 10-minutes his aunt is dead – it’s that kind of film. And what follows is a series of damaging encounters that are incredibly difficult to watch and raise plenty of questions both about Marhoul – and novelist Jerzy Kosinski’s – view of humanity and what kind of incidents we accept on film.
There is no doubting that The Painted Bird is cinematically successful. It’s gripping in as much as being unable to tear your eyes from the screen and beautifully shot by Vladimír Smutný, creating empathy for its leading character. Marhoul also skilfully presents violence, increasing the tension with cut-aways and shifting the camera slightly away from the faces of the actors which has the effect of increasing the impact of what the film is showing. And it’s unclear until some time into the film that the period is even wartime, with large chunks of the action taking place in communities of peasants seemingly untouched by the wider impact of the European conflict.
Troubling on several levels however is how the film presents some of these experiences. It is necessary to suspend your disbelief enough to believe that this child could be so unfortunate as to encounter a succession of people who beat and abuse him while the only kindness the Boy is shown is from the Nazis and Soviet soldiers – an interesting point about the wider brutality of people day-to-day.
But that brutality comes with significant challenges; why does the Boy need to encounter two paedophiles in quick succession, both of whom sexually abuse him in graphic scenes, the second (a woman) who torments the carnally confused pre-pubescent child by provoking sexual jealousy in a further unnecessary scene of bestiality which adds little except titillation to a movie that has already made its points with abundant clarity? Likewise, the presentation of women is virtually medieval, either as witchy crones or sexual objects, wantons who wander naked in the countryside to lure men into intercourse or are shown with deeply exposed cleavage that indicates their sexual availability to anyone who wants them. None of these decisions are vital to the story; they are salacious and disappointing in a film that has plenty of worth to say elsewhere.
Filmed over several years as the young star ages and with no incidental music to guide the viewer, the performance of Petr Kotlar as the nameless Boy is fantastic, silently enduring all the indignities heaped upon him, dealing with Antisemitism, thrashings and death while slowly charting his detachment. Within the performance you see the transition to violence occur within the Boy’s instincts as he absorbs the lessons of those who use and assault him, while never losing the concern of the viewer, a significant achievement given the cruel subjection of this child and us as helpless witnesses.
Look out too for valuable cameos from Harvey Keitel as a priest who may or may not be complicit in the exploitation of the Boy, Julian Sands as a creepy abuser and Stellan Skarsgård as Hans, while Barry Pepper adds a texture as a Soviet solider whose initial resistance to the Child’s presence develops into one of the calmest moments of the film where a deeper connection develops.
With tales of mass walkouts at its Venice Film Festival screening, The Painted Bird is a movie to endure rather than to enjoy. The quality and beauty of the filmmaking and the unrelenting impact of its messages about human nature make this film deserving of a high star rating, but something in its approach and choices goes almost too far and must come with additional reservations. A film then that you can admire and feel violated by at the same time, which of itself is a notable achievement. You will never forget it but neither will you want to watch anything like ever again.