When I first heard about writer/director Vaclav Marhoul’s 169-minute adaptation of The Painted Bird, I got very excited. I had read the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski nearly thirty years ago, before all the controversy about potential plagiarism and lies about the autobiographical nature of the story, and it was a powerful tale of survival in the harshest conditions. The Painted Bird tells the story of a boy making his way, alone, across Eastern Europe during World War II, against a backdrop of nearly medieval levels of superstition, poverty, and violence. It was one of those books that, for me, ranked up there with Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or Selby’s The Room for disturbing works of literature that are difficult to get through due to their brutality and transgressive natures.

It was a book I never expected to be adapted to film. The stories of audiences walking out due to the representations of pedophilia, bestiality, animal cruelty, and gory violence, just added to the appeal for me. I am a lover of extreme cinema, and this sounded like something that could test my limits, especially when I started reading the hyperbolic reviews. The Painted Bird sounded like some bloodcurdling shit.

But as it turns out, The Painted Bird is actually a beautifully shot, black and white art film that while including all the horrors mentioned above, does so in a way that never made me want to turn away. Some of the imagery is harsh, but none of it is ugly.

Marhoul opts to avoid non-diagetic music until the credits roll, creating a field of silence that is represented physically by The Boy (Petr Kotlar). Never speaking, the Boy is introduced to the audience running through the forest, clutching a ferret in his arms. He is being chased by other children, who catch him, beat him, and burn the ferret alive. Once the Boy returns to his Aunt’s ramshackle shack with his pet’s corpse, we get the first words: “It’s your fault.”

This is maybe the most horrifying part of the film and serves as a shot across the bow for the audience. It’s hard to watch and sets the stage for the horrors to come, but rarely does the film ever get this explicit again. That said, it leans full-on into the bleakness and hopelessness that this opening scene captures. And this is almost idyllic compared to what comes next, when his aunt (Nina Sunevic) dies in her sleep and startled, the Boy drops his lantern, setting the shack on fire. Now homeless and alone, not knowing when or if his family was ever coming back, he wanders to a nearby village where he is feared as a Jew or Romani, captured, put in a sack, and beaten.

He is literally put in a sack. The only thing that saves him is the arrival of the local healer/witch/shaman, Olga (Ala Sakalova), who declares he is a vampire and takes him away to serve as her slave/assistant.

While The Painted Bird can sound like a parade of horrors, the Boy finds a surprising number of people who sincerely want to help him survive. He drifts through horrors from oasis to oasis of peace. But the horrors are systemic. There’s on real escape from them. Marhoul uses the Interslavic language instead of any ethnic Slavic language like Ukranian, Polish, or Russian to avoid associating real cultures with the violence and degradation of the villagers in the film, but it is clear that the evils the Boy encounters are evils of madness, superstition, jealousy, and rage. The evil is a visceral force of nature, rather than the intellectualized evils represented by the appearance of Nazis later in the story.

When the Boy is given to the Nazis by another set of villagers, the response is cold and to the point. The Nazi leader asks for a volunteer to take the Boy out in the woods and execute him. It’s clinical and businesslike, totally different to the chimerical and insane violence of the countryside. There’s practically no way to predict what will happen next to the Boy, as each trauma seems to originate in madness and/or despair, and we watch as he does things, some justified, some not, that make it clear he is surviving, but he is losing his humanity.

But in the world of The Painted Bird, humanity is just a thin veneer covering a deep well of brutality, channeled by civilization into socially acceptable forms of violence: racism, politics, and war. As the credits begin to roll and the camera pans upward, Marhoul does give us a brief glimpse of hope as the Boy is reunited with his father (Petr Vanek), fresh from a concentration camp. This is despite the central metaphor of the film, the titular painted bird, which is rejected and murdered by the rest of the flock when it returns unrecognizable.

There’s a lot to take in with this film. At nearly three hours long with long stretches of silence, there are going to be many viewers who won’t have the patience for The Painted Bird, despite the achingly beautiful cinematography of Vladimir Smutny. This film looks amazing as it traumatizes the viewer. The pacing is on par with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, but those are not the films that I would generally compare it with. If anything, The Painted Bird is a companion piece to 1985’s Come and See by Russian filmmaker Elem Klimov (which was just released in the US as a Criterion Blu-ray). Come and See’s lead, Aleksey Kravchenko, actually shows up in The Painted Bird in a small role as a Russian soldier in the final third of the film.

Klimov’s film tells a very similar story as a Belarusian teenager (Kravchenko) is thrust into the horrors of World War II, however Marhoul makes the opposite stylistic choices, as if in contrast. Come and See features a soundtrack of amorphous noise soundscapes that unnerve, while The Painted Bird basks in silence. There’s a sense of surrealism underlying the world of Come and See, where The Painted Bird offers very little escape from the Boy’s reality. Even the contrast in the use of color compared to black and white effects the way each story is told. There’s also a distinct shift in the focal point of each film’s exploration of evil and violence, with Come and See firmly fixing on the Nazis as evil and the general populous as victims, while The Painted Bird casts everybody as implicated in madness and violence.

Each film is a masterpiece and would make a breathtaking double-feature, but I don’t know that I’d actually suggest sitting through them back-to-back.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Hollywood star power that Marhoul brought on-board The Painted Bird. Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, and Barry Pepper all play small but crucial parts in the Boy’s descent into hell. While they each play their parts to perfection (thanks in some cases to dubbing), I have to admit that I was taken out of the film whenever someone I recognized appeared on-screen. But if you’re questioning whether or not you want to take a deep dive into a three-hour, black and white, nightmare, they might be the lifejackets you need to make it through.

The Painted Bird opens in select theaters and Digital/VOD today, July 17, 2020.

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