“The Painted Bird”, which was selected as the Czech entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar in last year (It was included in the December shortlist although it was not nominated in the end, by the way), is a grueling piece of work which made me cringe more than once during my viewing at last night. Relentlessly grim and brutal during most of its 169-minute running time, the movie tries to be something as harrowing as, say, Elem Klimov’s great war film “Come and See” (1985), but the overall result is more or less than a stylistic exercise on cruelty and misery, and you may find yourself wondering whether you should really endure all those numerous horrific scenes for a small moment of poignancy at the end of the film.
The movie, which is based on the controversial novel of the same name written by Jerzy Kosiński, is set in a deliberately unspecified region somewhere in the Eastern Europe around the time of the World War II, though the story of the novel is set in Poland. According to the IMDB Trivia section, director/producer Václav Marhoul, who also adapted Kosiński’s novel for his movie, did not want the story to be associated with any specific Easter European country, so he had his performers in the film speak in a fictional language which is a mix of several different Eastern European languages.
Anyway, it is clear to us from the beginning that the movie does not intend to be that realistic at all. After the opening scene featuring a very cruel act of animal killing, we meet a young boy who will function as the main center of the story, and the movie quickly establishes his rather fragile situation. He has been separated from his Jewish family for a while due to the reason most of us know well, and he has been taken care of some old lady in her house located in the middle of some remote spot, but, alas, he soon finds himself left alone due a couple of very unfortunate incidents.
The story of the movie consists of a number of chapters, and their respective titles come from the names of several different people with whom the boy happens to be associated during his following journey of hardship and mistreatment. In a local village which often looks medieval at times, the boy is savagely abused by its residents just for, well, being different from them, and he is eventually sold to an old female shaman. When the boy needs to be treated for some illness at one point, the shaman buries him in the ground up to his neck, and that subsequently leads to another cruel moment which will definitely make you wince a lot for good reasons.
Now you may need some drink, because this is just the beginning of more bad things to happen to and around the boy. During the part involved with a sadistic miller who lets the boy stay in his residence, the tension is built up on the screen as this angry and bitter man watches his long-suffering wife and a young employee of his with growing suspicion, and that eventually culminates to a very gruesome moment of physical mutilation. In case of an old man who kindly takes the boy under his wing, he happens to be quite close to a certain promiscuous young woman in a nearby village, and it goes without saying that a very bad thing eventually happens to both of them because of their connection.
After going through a series of horrific moments, the boy later comes to find some respite from a kind Catholic priest who saves the boy from his latest plight, but, of course, there soon comes another horror for the boy. When some guy in the priest’s parish offers a staying place for the boy, the priest certainly welcomes this offer, but, what do you know, this guy turns out to have to a heinous intention behind his back, and the movie thankfully restrains a bit from his evil deeds to the boy.
Around the point where the boy manages to be free from this vile dude, the world surrounding him becomes more violent and dangerous than before. We see several acts of atrocities committed by those Nazi German soldiers as expected, and then we also observe how Russian soldiers are equally cruel and ruthless. When the boy happens to be under the protection of a company of the Russian army later in the story, the mood becomes a little more relaxed than before, but then, of course, the movie slaps us hard with another very unpleasant moment of violence, and there is a chilling scene where the boy casually assists a Russian sniper shooting several civilians just for revenge.
Now I ask myself again on what is really the point of all those barbaric moments of human evil depicted in the film. Although the last act of the movie shows a little sign of hope and recovery with the indirect revelation of the boy’s real name, that looks pretty pale compared to what has been shown to us during the rest of the film, and we are only left with unpleasant impressions in the end without much emotional involvement in its story and characters.
While I am still not so willing to recommend it, “The Painted Bird” is not entirely without good things to be observed and appreciated. While the cinematography by Vladimír Smutný is often striking with crisp black and white images, young actor Petr Kotlár deserves to be commended for holding the center well despite being constantly thrown into one cruel moment after another during most of the running time, and the various main case members in the film including Udo Kier, Julian Sands, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, and Stellan Skarsgård are mostly effective in their respective supporting roles. This is surely a well-made movie, and I must say that Marhoul and his cast and crew members show admirable commitment, but the movie merely jolted and shocked me without enough emotional effect, and that is all.