“The Painted Bird,” Václav Marhoul follow-up to his Czech adaptation of “The Red Badge of Courage ,” is another technically impressive literary rendition, this time around of accomplished novelist Jerzy Kosinski, whose works have also seen a transfer from page to screen with the 1979 film titled “Being There” directed by Hal Hasby was another adaptation of Kosinski’s work.
With unsettling subject matter and a first-rate supporting cast, “The Painted Bird” is the kind of art-house flair that’s made for festivals and a niche audience that crave for demanding and uncompromising visions. And, indeed, the picture represents itself as being the most grueling film released so far this year. In a year that feels very apocalyptic and uncertain with a world-wide pandemic occurring along with political upheaval, with the ongoing abuse of government dishonesty and power,”The Painted Bird” feels even more cautionary than ever on its commentary on humanity and the despotism that is created from the same corrupted and oppressive power structure that embraces it. Once a government and leaders put others against each other, humans tend to treat each other the exact crude way.
World-premiering at last year’s prestigious Venice Film Festival, “The Painted Bird” will be that type of film that post-modern film viewers will more than likely appreciate and discover as years pass by due to its stiff and demanding subject matter, a sampler of literary cinema. Yet in its mostly successful epic history lesson, uncompromising vision, unforgettable imagery, and wrenching performances, “The Painted Bird” will more than likely plague the viewers mind upon viewing. As such, inevitable comparisons will be drawn to other art-house caliper filmmakers, like Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr, two other art-house visionaries whose films also merge the despair with skillfully impressive, technical filmmaking.
Marhoul’s previous films are very different in tone and style. Whereas he used a more relaxed and loose touch in translating “The Red Badge of Courage” to the screen, in “The Painted Bird,” he remains very faithful to the source material, Koskinki’s’s novel, which was published in 1965. As a historical drama, “The Painted Bird” is not only set during war torn Europe during WW2, it also recalls vintage European and Russian art-house war drams of that era, such as “The Cranes Are Flying,” which also centered the horrors and suffering from a Soviet perspective, or “Ivan’s Childhood,” which was Tarkovsky’s debut film also about a young boy enduring the horrors of WW2.
On a visceral level the film is comparable to Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” that invokes a harsh, very long running-time on the audience of punishment and harrowing bleakness for almost a near running time of almost 3 hours. It’s a tough sell, but the most advantageous film goer will find a lot to admire with this film’s craftsmanship and devastating drama that is relentless, but nothing short of engaging.
Part condemnation of not only Nazi Germany, but the complicity of Europe, most notably Eastern Europe, that also used sadism, prejudice, antisemitism, oppression, and another amoral tactics towards each other during Nazi’s power grab. The film makes no apologies how demoralized a society can get once a government’s own leadership is just as cruel and demoralizing.
With dazzling visual grandeur merged with gruesome bleakness, this episodic film told through the eyes of a young child along the Polish-Soviet battle front is one of the most bold and demanding films to be released so far this year. The film is indeed overstuffed with many forms of bleakness; raging from human violence to animal cruelty to torture and brutality, and even disturbing sexual content that has rape and bestiality, the film is indeed lurid and graphic, there is no doubt that is an endurance of patience and tolerance as the film explores sensitive themes of depravity and primitive human nature.
The film is about a young 12-year old boy named Joska (Petr Kotlar), an olive-skinned Jewish boy who is thought of as “the other” who lives with his aunt and is constantly bullied and assaulted by the locals each time he leaves home. The beginning of the film they torture and kill his pet ferret. This is just the start of the film and it only gets more challenging and horrifying to watch from there.
Joska’s aunt dies, and he accidentally burns her home down. There is no will written, and Joska is instantly accused of being some evil superstition, one villager claims he is “the seed of the devil!” An older villager (Alla Sokoolva) comes to his rescue and guides him safely out of the village.
Joska is humiliated and oppressed along the entire of his journey through the landscapes of war torn WW2. Eventually Joska is taken by a birdcatcher (Udo Kier), who is very sexually frustrated once he suspects his wife is having an affair with one of the local villages. This leads Joska witnessing a very brutal confrontation that ends on the same disturbing level of Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible”, Greg Araki’s “Nowhere”, and William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe” of haunting and unforgettable imagery and moments that will forever haunt my cinematic memories.
The rest of the film episodic ventures are separated by chapters each with fresh characters, and some with many other familiar actors like Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, Harvey Keitel (dubbed), and Barry Pepper who plays a Soviet version of the sniper that is eerily similar to his American sniper role in “Saving Private Ryan.” The choice of casting may feel schematic or even gimmicky, but it actually gives the audience a sense of relief as the film feels so alien and repulsive in experience.
Other terrifying images include firing squads, eyeballs being ripped out, a man falling into a wale of rats, and a woman tempting to have bestiality with a goat, once the goats head is tossed through her window out of jealousy. One of the films most haunting images has the boy being buried up to his neck, as he is being pecked by black crows. Throughout the course of the film the boy is beaten, slapped, molested, humiliated, degraded, enslaved, and is coerced into many other horrifying actions.
Again, this is one challenging picture that is faithful to source material. But let’s face it, why does a work of art have to sugarcoat things? Especially when it comes to the denigration and horrors of war? “The Painted Bird” accomplished what it is set out to do, of being an unforgettable evocation of the horrors of war.
The fearless subject matter along with the commanding performance by Kotlar goes to show just how open-minded and advanced European cinema is, and always has been in creating difficult content that aims to be as authentic as possible. Undeniably, the film is ultimately crafted with rich artistry and stark beauty, it is a reminder that cinema at times needs to be brutal and harsh, so it can hopefully open up greater empathy in a world that is always yearning for it, especially in times like now.