An epic pastoral horror pitting human savagery against the impossible calm of nature, Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Polish author Jerzy Kosiński’s rattling World War II novel “The Painted Bird” is as bold a play for visceral cinema mastery as we’ve seen of late.
This black-and-white, nearly three-hour saga of a boy (nonprofessional Petr Kotlár, in a stunning turn) navigating the cruelties and caprices of ravaged rural Eastern Europe is not the wallowing miserablist parade you might fear, yet not quite the Holocaust-themed masterpiece it wishes to be. But the film, which premiered at the 2019 Venice Film Festival to the kind of emotional reactions (walkouts, raves) that can cement a troubling work’s need-to-see reputation, is always starkly compelling as a reminder of why war survival stories are essential to our understanding of innocence and beastliness.
Kosiński’s 1965 book was a litmus test of sorts, first for the unvarnished brutality within its pages (killings, rape, torture, bestiality). Later it was discovered to be an ambiguously sourced work that fused the autobiographical and imagined. But what has remained across the fraught history of its approach and authorship is its narrative power as a wartime story, told as a fractured fable in which peril reigns and morals are absent.
Marhoul’s film isn’t shy about the steady stream of ugliness, and that’s likely to turn away the terror-sensitive, and yet its immersive aesthetic also allows for the visually poetic and compassionate, even if those moments are few and far between.
Our unnamed protagonist, played by Kotlár with uncanny watchfulness, is not explicitly identified as Jewish or Roma. But because he’s been sent by his parents to live in the remotest part of his country — also never directly named (and Marhoul chose a Slavic mix for the dialogue to avoid specificity) — we sense ever-present danger. In the opening scene, he’s chased through the woods by anti-Semitic boys who beat him, then set his pet ferret on fire. When he later discovers his stooped guardian Marta (Nina Sunevic) dead in her chair, he accidentally sets her entire farmhouse ablaze, forcing him to wander an alternatively harsh and bucolic land seemingly untouched by civilized progress.
Captured by wretched, superstitious villagers, he’s purchased by an elderly witch doctor (Ala Sakalova) as a slave/apprentice, after which he finds shelter with a crusty miller (an especially terrifying Udo Kier) whose raging jealousy leads to a shocking act of violence toward the man he suspects is sleeping with his wife. This sequence is the closest to something out of a midnight movie, but there’s also metaphoric heft to the image of eyeballs gouged, someone’s sight removed.
A brief stay with a lonely old birdkeeper (Lech Dyblik) who regularly meets a wild-eyed forest woman (Jitka Ĉvanĉarová) for sex ends savagely and tragically at the hands of furious townswomen, but not before the man shows the boy a telling amusement of his: daubing paint on a bird, sending it to meet its flock, only to watch the group viciously attack it as an unrecognizable alien.
After that, the treacherous terrain continues, including a nightmarish sequence in which Jews leaping off a moving train are mowed down by Nazis. Other scenes are marked by charity turned the pitiless, as when a friendly priest (Harvey Keitel, dubbed but physically effective) saves the boy from Germans only to entrust him with an abusive congregant (Julian Sands), and when the attentions of a lustful farmwoman (Julia Valentova) queasily mix predation and tenderness, then morph into emotional cruelty that further hardens the boy’s relentlessly beset soul.
It’s a curious shading that Kosiński’s story paints villagers and peasantry as the most breathlessly awful tormentors, as though war’s hellishness were a license to let long-festering ignorance and fear wreak havoc, while the mini-portraits of two soldiers (Stellan Skarsgård’s stoic German and Barry Pepper’s protective Red Army sniper) provide some of the film’s scarce episodes of kindness, albeit the kind born of atrocity-laden weariness, as the actors’ finely etched, compact performances reveal.
As the boy’s journey defines his worldview, the human vs inhuman throughline lies in whether his connection to a stranger emphasizes his otherness, usefulness, or need. And Marhoul is smart enough to invest a cautious, dense air to much of regular collaborator Vladimír Smutny’s painterly, Tarkovsky-esque cinematography — breathtakingly reminding one of 35mm film’s textured richness — as if in awe that the land still holds occasional beauty while remaining nervous about the inhabitants. The unsentimental approach is matched by Jan Vlasák’s hard, grimy production design and vividly lived-in costume work from Helena Rovná.
And yet, for all its burly artistry, “The Painted Bird” is a sputtering behemoth, perhaps too loosely assembled in its vignettes (named after each figure the boy meets) to make for a unifying statement about the collective impact of enduring so much barbarism at so impressionable an age. That said, its ending — of all things, flecked with hope — is powerful for how anti-climactic it is, as if the boy’s journey, and ours, wasn’t so much about escaping a gauntlet of hell as about living to bear witness to what continues to confound us all: the inhumanity forever gurgling, looking for release.
IFC Films is releasing “The Painted Bird” on VOD on Friday.