Toward the beginning of “The Painted Bird,” we see the nameless young protagonist (played by Petr Kotlár) watch Lekh (Lech Dyblik), the bird breeder he is staying with, paint the wings of a small bird he has captured before releasing it to rejoin its flock. But because the painted bird is different from the rest, the other birds attack it until it falls to the ground, dead. This scene is not only the sequence from which the story, based on the acclaimed 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, derives its title, but it serves as the thesis statement for the story overall: if you aren’t like those in power, you will suffer.
It’s a valid statement for a film that is set in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, and follows a young Jewish boy as he journeys from horror to horror, trying to survive. The film, which is directed and produced by Václav Marhoul, who also wrote the screenplay, opens with the boy coming to stay with his aunt, having been sent to her by his parents for his protection. When the aunt suddenly passes away, the boy finds himself wandering on his own. Nine separate chapters detail each person or group the boy comes in contact with while seeking refuge, and while he is occasionally met with kindness, for the most part he is horrible abused or neglected—or forced to watch those who were kind to him suffer.
“The Painted Bird” is unrelenting in its depiction of the horrors the boy experiences. It is far from an easy watch, and it continues to follow the same shocking cycle for nearly three hours (when the film screened at film festivals such as Venice and Toronto last year, many audiences walked out). We watch the boy be tied up, hit, shot at, molested, even buried in the sand up to his head for the crows to come peck at him. But it isn’t sadistic for the sake of being sadistic; with every encounter, we witness not just the terrors of the war, but we watch the boy grow and change until he is no longer the same person he was at the start of the film. While the film ends on a surprisingly hopeful note, it’s also apparent that whatever healing the boy will achieve down the line, some of those wounds will never go away.
It’s a largely intimate story, but we do get glimpses of the bigger picture of how Nazi oppression is affecting the continent. We see prisoners being marched to concentration camps, and German soldiers shooting at any who try to run. Toward the end of the movie, the boy is taken under the wing of a Russian soldier, giving the audience—and the boy—a more concrete portrait of the dog eat dog nature of war. And then there’s the incredibly moving final few shots of the film, which allow the viewer to imagine the atrocities that so many other Jews, not just the boy, have experienced. It’s unclear exactly where the events of this film take place; Marhoul chose to have all the villagers the boy encounters speak a blend of Slavic languages so that a single country couldn’t be singled out. Marhoul also decided to shoot the movie on black-and-white 35 mm film, and the stark cinematography by Vladimír Smutný further emphasizes the boy’s bleak circumstances.
Kotlár, in his film debut (Marhoul discovered him by chance) delivers a stunning, mute performance (there’s actually very little dialogue in the film overall). He also physically ages throughout the course of the movie (which was shot sequentially), which becomes an effective marker of his growth as a character as well. Many talented international actors come and go throughout the course of the film. Stellan Skarsgård plays a German soldier who is tasked with executing the boy, but ultimately releases him. Harvey Keitel portrays a kind priest who takes in the boy and offers him a home with a local man, a man who secretly abuses him. Barry Pepper is the Russian officer who mentors the boy; the cast further features Julian Sands and Udo Kier.
“The Painted Bird” is a tough film to watch, but it deals with a tough subject, one that certainly should never be sugar-coated merely to pacify a wider audience. Once the viewer embarks on the journey, it doesn’t let them go. There’s a bit of a morbid fascination that goes into being spellbound by witnessing nightmare after nightmare, wondering how it could possibly get any worse (and it always does), but there’s a larger message that isn’t explicitly told, but is very much felt: adult or child, soldier or peasant, persecutor or persecuted, war dehumanizes everyone.
“The Painted Bird” will be available to watch on demand and in select theaters on Friday, July 17. Runtime: 169 minutes. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.