Ruthless, barbaric, primitive…would be the words that will pop up in your mind after watching The Painted Bird. Its graphic depiction of brutality, specifically towards Jews, gives us a glimpse of how far mankind can go in its pursuit of evil.
Directed by Václav Marhoul, a Prague-born filmmaker, The Painted Bird is an adaptation of a Jerzy Kosiński’s notorious war novel. The film firstly made its entry to the screen competition at the 76th Venice Film Festival, and later featured in the programme of Toronto International Film Festival and then at the 63rd BFI London Film Festival, where it made its UK debut.
The Painted Bird follows the story of a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) striving to survive on his own in the midst of World War II. Wandering across the German-occupied provinces of Eastern Europe, the boy endures a range of inhumane assaults that lead him to commit evil himself.
Since Marhoul picked up a fresh face for a leading role, he cast big names like Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Julian Sand and Barry Pepper for the supporting roles. Their immeasurable acting abilities go beyond the linguistic barrier, proving themselves, once again as irreplaceable players
The use of interslavic language – an artificial language, consisting of some Slavic elements and unspecified words from Eastern Europe – could have been a risky choice, yet because we are in the presence Of such experienced actors, the language itself isn’t as jarring as first feared.
Monochrome filming technique plays its part remarkably. The black and white tone sets up a cold mood along with the narrative, which holds us back from identifying with the protagonist. Nevertheless, any emotional discomfort depicted here is eased by the astonishing scenery. The vast landscapes of grasslands, snowfields and woods give us shades of The Revenant with its breathtaking sequence of nature.
Blunt, bold shots and snappy scenes are seemingly Václav Marhoul’s signature. Forgoing any fancy camera work, he instead depicts things just as he sees them. And while The Painted Bird’s cinematography is not at all showy, it still manages to be spot-on.
Besides visual devices, body language acts as a key to the narrative. With relatively fewer lines, the cast communicate through a gaze, nearly in every scene. The camera gently pans in and holds for close-up shots over about ten to fifteen seconds.
After the boy slaughters a goat he ultimately becomes the ‘evil spirit’, just as the others call him. It’s uneasy to watch a preteen child being tortured and abused, however Marhoul’s cinematic aesthetic remains inspiring.
The Painted Bird persistently pursues human dignity and raises a question in our minds: what will happen if the world loses its humanity. All of this might leave a long, bitter aftertaste after 169 minutes and may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s still worth our attention.