A fascinating and uncompromising film, The Painted Bird is a lot to stomach. There’s endless cycle of violence and a total of about five sentences uttered throughout, the protagonist is mainly mute. Trudging through war-torn territory, an inordinate amount of atrocities are seen in this relentless vision of Eastern Europe during World War II.
Written and directed by Václav Marhoul, starring Petr Kotlár, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, and Udo Kier. The Painted Bird is a colossal experience, it owes a heaving amount to Andrei Tarkovsky and Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Specifically Come and See, whose star Aleksei Kravchenko even shows up in the film. While both films share an awful lot of the same thematic weaving, The Painted Bird has more to offer. There is intrigue and rather than a fully-fledged story, it has more of a set of ongoing circumstances that the protagonist stumbles upon. While Come and See gets lost in its non-existent story with its exploration of the human condition, Marhoul is nearly able to overcome this with his film, but isn’t fully successful.
A Jewish couple send their son to hide with a relative somewhere in Eastern Europe. The little boy (Petr Kotlár) resides in the countryside and when an unexpected tragedy hits, the boy is left to fend for himself. Stray and alone, he is forced to fend for himself within the violent and hostile environment of WWII Eastern Europe. Struggling for survival, he ends up lodging with a range of locals and villagers.
The Painted Bird is a mysterious tale of ambiguity and brutality, there is a harsh difference in the film’s quite and reserved nature to the violence seen. The world lived in is one of no morals and non-existent order – it’s a chaotic shamble of villagers steeped in superstitions, jealously violent husbands, and solider’s firing at escapees. It’s portrayal of these atrocities are captured with a detached lens, it’s cold and distant. This angle will perhaps be a lot to stomach for some, but it effectively works. Tension and acts of slight torment build towards instantaneous snaps of violence, as if they were just waiting for some sort of physical release. The innocence of the boy contrasts brilliantly to this and its certainly the best aspect of the film. It holds a strong place within the story, it allows growth for the boy and his eventual contemplation of his soul and future.
Beautiful images are a constant. Cinematographer Vladimír Smutný does a fantastic job capturing such quite and sumptuous moments. The black-and-white has a timeless quality, it could almost be a black-and-white-filmed Tarkovsky picture. While evidently the film has its striking qualities, it lacks in story. The Painted Bird drags a bit and is perhaps a little too indulgent for its own good. The muted aspect works, but fails to capture a consistent string of intrigue, it only picks up from time to time.
The Painted Bird is a largely unspoken and reserved film with flashes of the extreme. It’s a somewhat disturbing trek through the horrors of war, captured with cinematic elegance. However, it lacks a more warranted, layered narrative to get one through its observational angle of one trudging life from place to place.