The Painted Bird, written, directed, and produced by Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul, adapts Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel that surveys the destruction wrought by World War II on both Europe and the human soul. Told through the eyes of an orphaned young boy set adrift by circumstances into a world gone mad, it’s a journey of hardship, adversity, horrifying brutality, and fleeting moments of elegiac beauty. Put this one in your pocket for a cold, COLD winter’s night.
The Gist: Set in an unnamed country in Eastern Europe, we meet The Boy as he’s in the care of an elderly woman during the waning days of the Second World War. German and Russian forces ravage the countryside, and when his guardian dies and The Boy embarks alone on a wayward journey home, he’s beset by a succession of calamitous events. Early on, angry, fearful peasants beat him senseless, declare him a vampire, and sell him to an embittered folk healer. Elsewhere, an itinerant bird catcher takes him in, but in a scene reflective of the film’s title, The Boy learns the hard way how a flock will cast out the unknown individual.
Time after time, our lonely, wary, silent protagonist encounters individuals who will pay any cost for personal fulfillment. Harvey Keitel, as an aged village priest, saves The Boy from an SS death squad and indoctrinates him into the faith, but is deceived into allowing parishioner (and area moonshiner) Julian Sands care for his charge, who promptly subjects the child to unspeakable sexual violence and harsh labor conditions. “You’ll say nothing,” Sands seethes, “Or I’ll kill you.”
The Boy eventually finds his way into the fold of The Red Army, where a sniper (Barry Pepper) offers him a bit of companionship and some sage advice for life during wartime. And while Painted Bird offers a kind of redemption in the end, it’s never without the knowledge of what The Boy’s dark, flashing eyes have seen.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Lore offers another perspective on the child refugees of World War II, while The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Fury portray different aspects of complicity, violence, and humanity devalued. Werner Herzog’s Happy People: A Year in the Taiga presents an alternate portrait of rural people at work in the vast, lyrical forest.
Performance Worth Watching: Udo Kier is brilliant as the quaking, surly owner of a grain mill who agrees to harbor The Boy, but becomes enraged by his wife’s infidelity and commits a sickening act of retribution.
Memorable Dialogue: The Painted Bird deploys its dialogue sparingly, and is all the more powerful for it. When Kier growls “He’ll just bring misfortune” after discovering The Boy cowering on the floor of his mill, we know this man not only sees another mouth to feed, but the embodiment of everything he has lost.
Sex and Skin: Scenes of physical and sexual abuse abound in The Painted Bird. There is rape. There is bestiality. It is not for the faint of heart.
Our Take: The Painted Bird is often (very often) bleak and unsettling. It never flinches in its portrayal of a wartime populace acting on its most base instincts, and since we experience all of this as the young boy does, alongside him as he’s buried up to his neck and pecked at by crows, tossed without remorse into a pit of feces, and subjected to German soldiers machine gunning fleeing Jews, we are never allowed to tune out or turn away from the horror.
At the same time, the film is full of stark, spare beauty. Marhoul, shooting in shimmering black-and-white, intersperses his darkest episodes with lingering shots of birds in flight, drifting meadow grass, and the silent winter forest, where solitary trees whisper judgement on human folly. This Bird is as luminous as it is harrowing.
Our Call: STREAM IT. The Painted Bird is not meant for movie night or pizza night, and it definitely isn’t for kids, even if its main character represents them well. But it’s a powerful film that challenges the audience to stick with the story it has to tell, and does offer glimmers of hope amid all the despair.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
Watch The Painted Bird on Hulu