The Painted Bird not only portrays war as hell, it puts the viewer through a gauntlet of increasingly tortuous scenes in order to more directly experience that hell. For some viewers, there may be no revelation adequate enough to justify attempting to experience something this visceral. For others, the film is an unapologetic anti-war tale that provides a valuable, unflinching catharsis that honors those who have suffered and died in all wars, past and present.

Based on the late Jerzy Kosiński’s controversial 1965 bestselling novel of the same name, Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul’s adaptation is a World War II film like no other. An unnamed boy (Petr Kotlár), ostracized for being Jewish (though the actor is a Romani Czech), is under the care of an elderly relative. His parents’ whereabouts and safety are unknown, but the boy’s hope is clear when he sends a message downstream for them to “Come and fetch me.” The relative dies, the house burns down, and he begins an odyssey that seems designed to crush his hope at every turn.

The boy’s wanderings are divided into chapters featuring the various adults who temporarily take care, or ownership, of him. Across a savage Eastern European landscape, he’s continually thrown from frying pan to fryer. The first half feels more Middle Ages than 1944. He is beaten by villagers who are convinced he is a vampire, bought and enslaved by a witch, adopted by a miller couple, and then taken in by a mysterious bird-catcher. The bird-catcher, as the title suggests, paints the bird only to have it rejected and killed by its flock, mirroring the boy’s treatment by all of the villages and towns that castigate him. This is the most obvious clue that this story is meant, at least to some extent, to be allegory.

At first wide-eyed and innocent, the boy quickly finds he must adapt and learn if he’s to survive and reunite with his family. He saves his own skin in various ways: by shining the boots of a Nazi soldier who is about to execute him; by joining a foreign religion thanks to a benevolent priest (Harvey Keitel); and by joining the Red Army thanks to a fatherly sniper (Barry Pepper). But as each traumatic chapter inflicts ever deeper psychological, physical and sexual abuse, we see hope fade from the boy’s eyes and turn into a cold will to survive by any means necessary. He is becoming a man like those in the savage world around him. This is the origin of the eternal cycle of man’s inhumanity to man.

The Painted Bird tells its story strictly through visual language, and at times it feels like a documentary. Vladimír Smutný’s exquisite black-and-white 35mm cinematography captures the nameless boy’s world in full, rich detail, from darkest depravity to transcendent beauty. There is no score, only occasional music performed by characters on screen. Dialogue is used sparingly throughout. Much of it is done (for the first time on film) in Interslavic language to avoid representing any specific Slavic nation in a bad light. Kotlár’s mostly mute, extraordinary physical performance as the boy keeps us in his point of view from the very opening minutes and carries us through to the last frame. His task is beyond imaginable for any adult actor, let alone a child of only 10 years during the time of shooting. This may not be a film for everyone to attempt to endure, but for those who can, it is the high price to pay for a powerful artistic achievement of this magnitude.

An unapologetic anti-war tale that provides a valuable, unflinching catharsis.
90 %
Visceral & Unflinching
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