An extraordinary piece of filmmaking I hope never to see again, Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird” is a pulverizing movie experience from which one cannot look away. Adapted from Jerzy Kosiński’s controversial 1965 novel, it’s a nightmarish journey to the frayed edges of the human experience, fraught with sadism and unspeakable cruelty. This story of a young Jewish refugee wandering alone through Eastern Europe during the waning days of World War II depicts a civilization in collapse, its people reduced to their basest survival instincts. In many ways a 170-minute marathon of brutality and abuse, “The Painted Bird” would probably be unwatchable were it not so staggeringly well-made.
First-time actor Petr Kotlár stars as the child, billed simply in the credits as “A Boy.” After discovering his elderly foster mother dead of natural causes, he accidentally sets fire to their home and flees into the night seeking shelter. He’s mute for most of the running time, finding himself briefly in the custody of nine different caretakers while making his way nowhere in particular. The film is broken up into chapters bearing the names of those he encounters, though they are never spoken aloud. Marhoul has little use for dialogue in general, telling the story primarily through actions and stricken, haunted stares.
“The Painted Bird” contains an encyclopedia of appalling images, beginning with the boy’s pet being burned alive in the opening moments and only ratcheting up from there. We witness eye-gougings, bestiality, child rape, severed limbs, genital mutilation and pretty much anything else you’ve never wanted to see in a movie. And yet, to this critic, it never felt exploitative, as Marhoul maintains such a somber, dispassionate distance. This isn’t one of those movies where you sense the director is getting off on his transgressions, nor are they presented in a way that feels intended to get a rise out of the audience. The traumas of “The Painted Bird” are flatly regarded as everyday facts of life, with a level, unblinking gaze.
Shot on 35mm film in crisp, widescreen black-and-white, the film has no musical score to swell your emotions, nor any voice-over narration that would give us access to the child’s internal life. Marhoul’s framing often emphasizes the smallness of these characters in relation to the vast, empty spaces around them and enormous, grey skies above. His gaze is as distant as the God who has abandoned His creation to these horrors.
In that way, “The Painted Bird” is a deliberate stylistic throwback to arthouse films from the era when Kosiński’s novel was written, its aesthetic austerity calls to mind the works of Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky, notably featuring small supporting turns from old-school international cinema superstars like Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård. This is the kind of film where when Harvey Keitel shows up playing a priest, your first thought is, “Of course Harvey Keitel plays a priest in this movie.” (Marhoul’s decision to dub the actor’s native Brooklyn-ese with a Polish-speaking voice is perhaps more distracting than the alternative might have been, but it doesn’t matter too much because the performance is all in Harvey’s sunken, saddened eyes.)
This is also the kind of film that makes me miss movie theaters even more than I already did. It’s not just that the cinemascope compositions and stunning black-and-white photography are screaming out to be shown on a big screen, but the movie’s stillness and meditative mood hardly benefit from home viewing. One of the million reasons I love going to the movies is that the activity commands all of my attention — as Greta Gerwig is fond of saying, it’s one of the only things you can do where you can’t also be doing something else. So for however long we’re going to be stuck seeing everything at home, I worry about how to preserve that singular focus and sense of occasion. In the case of “The Painted Bird,” I shut off all the lights, cranked the speakers and hid my phone in the other room, still wishing the whole time that I could be watching it in a theater.
As to the perhaps more pertinent question of why anyone would want to watch something so grueling in the first place? Obviously this is one of those movies where your personal mileage will vary, but I’ve always found great catharsis in extreme art. To me, Marhoul’s muscular craftsmanship and ramrod integrity are infinitely preferable to the puerile trivialization of similar subject matter in last year’s odious “Jojo Rabbit,” a sickeningly offensive fantasy that ended with an Anne Frank stand-in and her ex-Hitler Youth boyfriend dancing in the streets to David Bowie.
“The Painted Bird” is about how war dehumanizes and destroys everything it touches. It crushes spirits and forces people to become their worst possible selves. As a culture, we cling to the myth that suffering somehow ennobles people and turns them into better human beings, when mostly it just makes them mean. In the film’s final moments a small gesture of forgiveness and understanding arrive with a force that feels seismic given all that’s come before. The flood of relief is earned by the previous three hours. Some stories are supposed to hurt.
“The Painted Bird” is available July 17 on most video on demand services.