The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird might be difficult to endure, but even harder to ignore

Film Review by Patrick Gamble | 27 Feb 2020
  • The Painted Bird
Film title: The Painted Bird
Director: Václav Marhoul
Starring: Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, Alla Sokolova, Udo Kier, Michaela Doležalová, Zdeněk Pecha, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Čvančarová, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Júlia Valentová Vidrnáková, Aleksey Kravchenko, Barry Pepper, Petr Vaněk
Release date: 27 Mar
Certificate: 18

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.

Released 11 Sep by Eureka; certificate 18