Friday, July 17

The Painted Bird Review

The Painted Bird

Dir: Václav Marhoul

Starring: Petr Kotlár, Nina Sunevic, Alla Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Ostap Dziadek

“There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.” – William T. Sherman

There is no glory in Václav Marhoul’s new film, “The Painted Bird”. A young boy, who is never named, is brutalized by countless people and witnesses the absolute cruelty of war, the evil spirit of humanity, and the bludgeoning emotional toil of living in fear of losing his life. There is no relief, no calm, no peace, just unrelenting, torturous inhumaneness for nearly 3 hours. 

The film, which received numerous walkouts throughout its festival run in 2019, is based on a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski. The title of the film is taken from a moment in the film, where the young boy we follow through the atrocities found in different villages, with an array of different people either meant to help and sometimes just established to torture, meets the company of a professional bird catcher who teaches him a lesson that will be unflinchingly reiterated throughout the film. The bird catcher captures and paints a bird, releasing it back to find the flock. But upon its return, the other birds see it as an intruder and proceed to attack it until it falls to earth. 

The young boy is left alone on a journey across a war ravaged world. When a sense of hope lingers into his life it is almost immediately snuffed out, like when a priest (Harvey Keital) entrusts the boy to a seemingly devoted churchgoer (Julian Sands) who turns out to be the living epitome of a monster. Another moment the young boy finds refuge on a farm. A young man working the fields helps the young boy but stares lustfully at the owner’s wife (Udo Kier). Enraged, the owner proceeds to take his eyes out with a spoon. Or, in the opening of the film when the young boy flees in panic, clutching a furry pet in his arms, only to be tackled and beat by a group and then forced to watch his pet burned alive. It’s distressing and disturbing over and over. 

This is the focus of the film, showing the atrocities of conflict-stricken worlds and the extent of societal collapse, examining the human condition under, many times, the unbearable cruelty of warfare. Intense moments involving war violence, child abuse, and animal cruelty are often observed, sometimes in complete view and other times framed just out of focus or with enough ambiguity that your mind must connect the dots. 

Comparisons to director Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” are easy for the unflinching nature of violence, but there is also beautiful monochrome photography that echo shades of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood”, there is no doubt that “The Painted Bird” is a beautifully composed tragedy. It’s a lens so pristine in composition it makes the awful subject matter somehow entrancing, in a way making it hard to look away even when the emotion portrayed warrants retreat. 

As the film proceeds, with cameos abundant and artistic rendering saturated in every gritty frame, something begins to lose its grasp on the viewer. In films about wars of the past, there is a sense of understanding that is often trying to be examined, questions proposed amidst bullets, blood, and brutality that try to grasp some kind of answer about humanity or produce a sense of capturing a moment in time for you to feel how the world was and how it moved past that moment. “The Painted Bird” is often strictly sensory, albeit an elegantly composed painting from start to finish, but it rarely examines the deeper meaning of its viciousness or offers a sense of how life existed underneath the torment of hatred and malice.

“The Painted Bird” is a complicated, many times raw and aggressively beautiful, and ultimately a challenging experience for any film viewer. While it may not offer the glory of intriguing questions or the examination of profound answers, it does understand clearly that war is hell. 

Monte’s Rating

3.00 out of 5.00

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