A few months ago, I reviewed Come And See, a masterful 1985 film which followed a young Soviet boy through the horrors of life during World War II. Clearly influenced by Jerzy Kosinki’s indelible yet discredited 1965 autobiography, the plot centered around a young Eastern European Jewish boy wandering from town to town towards the end of World War II and experiencing one atrocity after another. The story may or may not have been true, or perhaps based on someone else’s life, but the concept proved unforgettable. Finally brought to the screen by Václav Marhoul, this nearly three hour black and white film may lack the experimentation and cacophony of sound from Come And See, but it possesses gorgeous cinematography, a fantastic central performance, and an intimacy which will punch you in the gut over and over again.
Told in nine chapters named after the people he encounters, The Painted Bird follows a young boy whose parents have left him in the care of a stern but kind elderly relative. When she dies suddenly, the boy accidentally burns down their rural house and wanders aimlessly from one unnamed town to the next. As he encounters bigoted villagers, Nazis, sadists, abusers, pedophiles and more, we don’t so much see a child lose his innocence as we bear witness to an already benumbed survivor making one tough, soul-changing decision after another. Marhoul reportedly discovered Petr Kotlár in one of the towns he scouted for the production, and he gives a quiet, observant, stoic performance and does so with almost no dialogue. Shot over a two year period, one can see the difference in age and body shape from time to time, but his commitment to the role remains hugely impressive. He reminded me of Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon, in that you believed in his strength and his ability to convey his ever-hardening thoughts.
Marhoul laces the film with many brief but memorable star cameos, most likely to boost international sales. Udo Kier and Julian Sands make the biggest impressions as two men wrongly entrusted to care for the boy at different times. Alexsey Kravchenko, who played the young man in Come And See, also appears as a Soviet military officer, clearly passing the torch on to Petr Kotlár. Although mostly kept offscreen, the film’s brutality will likely overwhelm most viewers. Its stifling, repetitive qualities aim more to keep a record of the terrors millions of people experienced at the time rather than to entertain. If you’re seeking some light entertainment, look elsewhere. This film evokes words like grueling, harrowing, and uncompromising.
Having said that, The Painted Bird never bored me. Its grand visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, reminded me of those in Roma. The framing keeps you off balance and in the shoes of our young protagonist, but also serves to convey the scope and scale of the harshness. One sequence, in which a trainload of Jews attempt to escape from a moving train will stay with me for a long time. I also appreciated the many setups and payoffs in a film which may feel episodic yet actually builds towards something. The vastness and stark beauty of the landscapes may look awe-inspiring but feel more hopeless and daunting from the point of view of our main character.
Come And See left me without a shred of hope for humanity, whereas The Painted Bird, whose title refers to a young bird torn apart by a flock because of its differences to them, ends with just the tiniest bit of levity. We continue to feel the impact of the Holocaust to this day with ever-growing and ever-emboldened hatred of others getting permission to do so from our so-called leaders. We also navigate the trauma, often left unexamined, in the people who suffered at the hands of monsters. I never want to see The Painted Bird again, but I don’t really have to, as I will never forget it.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Painted Bird is available to rent on Amazon Prime, VUDU, Google Play, and DirectTV.