By Tim Jackson
The Painted Bird is a coming-of-age story populated by the worst of humankind.
The Painted Bird, directed by Václav Marhou. Available on Amazon Prime
The Painted Bird, based on Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel and directed by Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul, is about bearing witness. Whether or not what we are called on to witness is appropriate for the screen has become an issue with this film, which is stirring up controversy. This is a journey through hell, set at the close of the Second World War. Implied acts of pedophilia, child abuse, rape, eye-gouging, bestiality, and other atrocities are reasonable causes for concern. But these acts are not treated graphically or gratuitously exploited. They are dispensed with quickly, part of an epic 170-minute tapestry that depicts, with stark power, man’s brutality and elemental inhumanity.
Thirteen-year-old newcomer Petr Kotlár plays Joska, a boy who never speaks. He greets the world around him with a doe-eyed, grim, immobile face. Eventually, we grow to understand that he was abandoned by his parents, most likely because of poverty, and left to wander across this landscape. The film provides little explanation or context for the adolescent’s meanderings. An “interslavic language” is used for much of the dialogue — apparently to avoid stigmatizing any single ethnic group. (The novel was criticized for its unsavory depictions of various ethnic groups.)
Joska is looking for signs of hope, and a means of survival, in a world gone mad. In the opening scenes he is carrying a pet cat. We then see him running through the snowy woods pursued by unnamed bullies, who beat him and burn his cat alive. After an aunt, who has taken in the orphaned boy, suddenly dies, the emotional shock makes him knock over a lamp and burn her cabin down. Destitute, he walks off, eventually finding a village filled with superstitious peasants who “diagnose” the dark-skinned lad: “He’s got the Devil in him.” Facing death, he is pronounced a vampire by a primitive healer named Olga, who buys the boy to aid in her practice that draws on incantations, snakes, and ground tooth concoctions.
A succession of caretakers highlight other chapters in the child’s wanderings. He next lands with the Millers. After the husband, played by a wet-eyed Udo Kier, explodes in a frenzy of violence against his wife’s lover, the boy goes off again. In the segment, hanging out with Lekh and Ludmila, he witnesses peasant drunkenness, lust, rape, and murder. Lekh demonstrates nature’s indifference to life and death by brushing a starling with white paint and releasing it into a flock of birds flying overhead. At a distance, we see the flock swarm and attack the painted bird, who then spirals down to the earth. The overarching metaphor of the novel’s title is made crystal clear: when unchecked, man’s irrational fear of those who are different inevitably leads to bloodshed and death.
Further on, Joska encounters Nazis and, accused by the local peasantry of being a Jew, he is again sentenced to death. One kindly soldier played by Stellan Skarsgård saves him. The boy then seeks help from a priest, played by Harvey Keitel, who places the boy with Garbos, a dastardly child abuser. Keitel is wonderfully nuanced about the priest’s smug hypocrisy: the cleric knows the boy’s keeper is an abuser. As Garbos, British actor Julian Sands is creepily frightening. In a small moment of relief in Kosiński’s hellscape, the character is given a gruesome demise. The boy then finds himself living with a nymphomaniac in what may be the film’s most talked-about episode. Later, he is taken on by a sharpshooter in the Red Army, played by Barry Pepper, during which he will witness Cossack atrocities. The soldier gifts him a pistol.
These are not spoilers. Just the shattered world — barbarized by war — that Joska experiences. Dialogue is conspicuously absent in a story that Marhou has turned into an overwhelming visual experience. Close-up shots of eyes, gnarled faces, vast landscapes of mud and snow, primitive cabins, and drunken barrooms exude a primitive, black-and-white beauty. Every frame of this dark fairy tale is stuffed with texture and detail. This is the absurd progress of a small pilgrim through primitive communities under the shadow of modern warfare, an encounter with godless peasants, Catholic hypocrites, and sexual maniacs. It is a coming-of-age story populated by the worst of humankind. Mute and numbed by a perilous existence, people watch each other with indifference. The violence that afflicts these lives is honestly portrayed; the boy’s resilience offers a glimpse of promise. Such degradation and horror occurs everywhere and everyday in today’s world. Indeed, the Devil is found here.
Vladimír Smutný ‘s ravishing black-and-white 35mm cinematography recalls the films of Béla Tarr and, more recently, Łukasz Żal’s contributions to Pawel Pawlikowski’s films, Ida and Cold War. These Eastern Europe artists understand (as their compatriots have in the past) that the most powerful lessons about the frightening potential of human nature are best learned through dreamlike images of the worst that can be imagined.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.