The Painted Bird is a near-masterpiece. I feel like I need to say that at the outset. So much of the pre-release publicity stems from reports of walkouts when it screened at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. The reason for those walkouts was the graphic content, which includes – but is not limited to – one character getting his eyeballs gouged out with a spoon and an act of bestiality. Viewers do need to be prepared for such content in advance, yet this is the polar opposite of exploitation. Many horror films are far gorier; it's the realistic tone that makes those intermittent moments shocking. That sensation is crucial to helping you understand the journey of the main character.
Actually, this nearly three-hour black-and-white Holocaust drama opens with a gut punch, as bullies chase “Boy” (Petr Kotlar) and light his pet ferret on fire. It's the first of many hardships he will endure. Boy's parents send him to live with his aunt in an effort to protect him from the extermination of Jews happening around them. Shortly thereafter, the woman dies, leaving him to fend for himself. Boy commences a voyage that finds him crossing paths with a deranged miller (Udo Kier), a duplicitous priest (Harvey Keitel), and a Russian soldier (Barry Pepper), among others. Most of these people cause Boy more anguish, although one or two are helpful in some form.
Written and directed by Vaclav Marhoul and based on Jerzy Kosinski's novel, The Painted Bird is not like any other movie about the Holocaust. There are few scenes expressly showing the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Schindler's List this is not. Instead, the story is structured as a series of vignettes. Boy travels to a place, encounters someone who has an impact on him, then moves on to the next place. The process repeats. Collectively, these episodes lead him to a surprising final destination, as well as a form of growth.
The idea is to use Boy's misery as a metaphor. Every time he thinks he couldn't possibly face something worse, a new appalling event befalls him. He is left helpless and afraid, yet also somewhat numb to it over time. Misfortune begins to feel inescapable. In that regard, his experience represents the Holocaust itself, which of course was packed with innumerable acts of cruelty inflicted upon the Jewish people. The lengthy running time is essential, in that it suggests the long reign of terror the Jews lived under.
An obvious question is, Why would anyone want to spend three hours watching a child go through hell? If The Painted Bird was gratuitously shocking, I would agree. It's not, though. Marhoul asks us to take the journey with Boy as a way of engaging with the Holocaust from a personal perspective. Whereas the majority of films on the subject deal with it in totality, this one looks at it from a micro point of view. We put ourselves in the shoes of Boy, imagining how we would deal with unthinkable scenarios. Beyond that, a well-made movie is always worth watching. Aided by stark cinematography from Vladimir Smutny and effective performances by the entire cast, the picture is engrossing in its desire to challenge.
There is only one area in which The Painted Bird falters. Harvey Keitel, a fine actor, has had his distinctive voice dubbed. Anyone familiar with his work will notice it immediately, given that the person dubbing him has a completely different timbre. The effect is very distracting in a section of the film that otherwise contains a lot of power. I don't know why this was done, but there were two better options: 1.) let Keitel's voice remain; or 2.) cast a different actor altogether. Having a recognizable performer speak in a voice we know is not his own pulls you out of the movie to a degree. In every other respect, Marhoul is trying to make the story immersive, so this anomaly is confusing.
Is The Painted Bird going to be for everyone? No. It is a film that asks you to allow yourself to be provoked. Extremely sensitive viewers might find themselves aghast. Again, though, the intent is to capture the dread people lived under during the Holocaust. Softening that up would be wrong. Marhoul dares to go hard, resulting in an emotionally devastating picture that shakes you up in precisely the manner it should.
out of four
The Painted Bird is unrated, but contains adult language, graphic violence, nudity/sexuality, and a scene of bestiality. The running time is 2 hours and 49 minutes.