Review by Sean Boelman
It wouldn’t be an understatement to call Václav Marhoul’s World War II drama The Painted Bird one of the most emotionally painful things ever committed to the screen. And yet, despite the fact that viewers will be wanting to look away from many of the atrocities being depicted, it’s a quite brilliant film in many ways.
Based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, the movie follows a young boy seeking refuge from the horrors of WWII, traveling across Eastern Europe and encountering many different people along the way. It’s a segmented narrative, and as is the case with almost any film with such a structure, there are certain portions that are more effective than others, but there is no portion here that is entirely a miss.
For its nearly three-hour runtime, the audience is subjected to pure misery from the perspective of a young child. The movie gained some notoriety on the festival circuit for its depictions of such horrific things as pedophilia and sexual violence, and admittedly, it’s very discomforting. Still, Marhoul manages to not cross the line into tastefulness.
Instead, Marhoul uses his film in a way as to provide commentary on how, despite humanity’s frequent depravity, there is a sense of hope to be found in the darkest moments we experience. Although the movie isn’t particularly subtle with its messaging, everything about the movie is pretty overt in general.
Part of what makes the film hit so hard is that the protagonist is so young and idyllic at the beginning of the story. And as all of these terrible things continue to happen to him, the audience is left helpless as they watch him being exploited and manipulated. On the other hand, the supporting characters are mostly deplorable and easy to hate.
One of the most impressive things about the movie is that, despite casting well-known actors such as Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper, Marhoul required them to speak in a non-native tongue, giving it an extra level of authenticity. Of course, young actor Petr Kotlár is the absolute highlight, though, giving a performance that is enormously emotional.
The film is shot with some gorgeous black-and-white cinematography from Vladimír Smutný, accentuating the themes of light and darkness. The most brutal portions of the movie are often contrasted with some wonderful exteriors. These shots also provide some much-needed relief in an otherwise oppressively bleak narrative.
The Painted Bird is perhaps best described as auteur shock cinema, but it works. Even though it is often horribly disturbing, that is exactly what it is meant to do, and as a result, it’s one of the most riveting war movies in recent memory.
The Painted Bird hits VOD on July 17.