Much in Václav Marhoul’s 2019 film The Painted Bird is deliberately obscure—like where are we, what year is it, and who are these people?—so it may be useful to start with a little grounding. The film is based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski, who initially claimed it represented his childhood experiences during World War II. He later withdrew that claim, but it’s still a useful lens through which to view the events of this film, which center around a young boy, Joska (Petr Kotlár), as he tries to survive on his own during very troubled times indeed.
The theme of the film is expressed in the title, which is explained in this passage from the novel. The narrator describes the actions of a professional bird catcher:
“One day he trapped a large raven, whose wings he painted red, the breast green, and the tail blue. When a flock of ravens appeared over our hut, Lekh freed the painted bird. As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil. It was still alive, opening its beak and vainly trying to move its wings. Its eyes had been pecked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made yet another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone.”
The Painted Bird isn’t about birds, however, but about people, and the fact that they frequently behave no better than dumb animals. And when times are hard, the first instinct of many people is to attack anyone who is different. That’s unfortunate if, like Joska, you are a “Gypsy or Jewish stray” trying to survive on your own in a world of adults who, if they pay any mind at all, seem mainly interested in exploiting you.
At the start of the film, Joska is living with his aged aunt in the countryside (presumably in Central Europe, since many characters speak Interslavic). When she dies, he is sold to a traditional healer who uses him in her ceremonies, resulting in his eyes nearly being pecked out by crows. Next, he finds a temporary home working for a miller (Udo Kier) and his wife. While they don’t directly abuse him, the level of violence in the household is astonishing (and feels quite personal, unlike much big-screen violence), and soon Joska is off to seek a different situation.
Quite a few more episodes follow, introduced by small title cards in the lower left corner of the screen. Suffice it to say that we would consider virtually none of these experiences to be suitable for a small boy, while also noting that they might well be fairly typical of what could happen to unprotected child during wartime. Joska is something of a blank slate for much of the film, witnessing many events but taking part only as necessary to survive; this approach is underlined by the fact that he is silent for much of the film. The appearance of German troops and SS guards eventually reveals that the story takes place during World War II, but that specificity is less important than the general tenor of Joska’s experiences—and such experiences are, unfortunately, not limited to any particular period of history or geographical location.
The Painted Bird is a monumental work, running two hours and forty-nine minutes, and everything about it screams “EPIC!”, from Vladimir Smutny’s 35 mm black and white cinematography to the wide cast of characters and weighty subject matter. The film is not particularly close to my memories of the book (which was even more horrifying than what you see on screen), but why should it be? The film is its own thing, and while I’m not sure it justifies its nearly-three-hour running time (it sometimes feels like the director is determined to transcribe all the events in the novel to cinematic form) or surfeit of brutality (this film has an 18 certificate in the U.K., meaning people younger than 18 are not allowed to see it in theaters), it’s a powerful work and definitely worth seeing if you’re up for the experience. Critical response has been extremely positive, and The Painted Bird has won awards at multiple international film festivals, including Venice and Chicago. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Painted Bird is distributed in select theatres and on VOD by IFC Films.