The Painted Bird
The Painted Bird might be difficult to endure, but even harder to ignore
Adapted from Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel, Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird comes at the viewer with its talons bared; an affront that asks audiences to stomach a vision of war marked by acts of barbarism and sexual deviancy.
The film follows an unnamed boy of Jewish heritage (Kotlár), as he embarks on a nightmarish voyage through an austere and implacable wilderness, where characters cross paths like ghosts, and violence strikes as suddenly as lightning. Named after one of the film’s most shocking scenes, in which a starling daubed with white paint is pecked to death by its flock, Marhoul’s depiction of WWII shifts seamlessly between ugliness and lyricism, thanks primarily to Vladimir Smutny’s luminous black and white cinematography.
Despite deriving its power from a child’s-eye view of the war, the film has far more in common with Homer's Odyssey than Andrey Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Marhoul’s commitment to an allegorical structure not only allows him to depict the breadth of atrocities inflicted by the German and Russian armies in Eastern Europe, it also gives him the opportunity to pull together a band of larger than life cameos, including Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård and Harvey Keitel.
Inhabiting an abstract landscape of moral degradation, Marhoul’s bludgeoning portrait of humanity’s innate aptitude for cruelty may not offer any new perspectives on the horrors of war, but there's something stubbornly impressive about his fire and brimstone approach. The Painted Bird might be difficult to endure, but it is even harder to ignore.