wed 29/05/2024

Blu-ray: The Painted Bird | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: The Painted Bird

Blu-ray: The Painted Bird

Harrowing tale of wartime life on the margins

Odd couple: Stellan Skarsgård and Petr Kotlár in 'The Painted Bird'

Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird (Nabarvené ptáče in Czech) comes with a lot of baggage, a critics’ screening at the 2019 Venice Festival punctuated by mass walkouts but finishing with a ten-minute standing ovation.

Then there’s the supposedly autobiographical source novel by Jerzy Kosiński (best known for Hal Ashby’s Being There), now generally accepted to be a work of fiction. The Painted Bird doesn’t make for easy viewing. It’s long, gruelling and violent, but, as a Czech friend pointed out to me, the world it describes was, and still is, “rough and harsh”, and that getting bogged down in the bloodier specifics means we miss the film’s wider sweep, its unflinching depiction of the effects of war on a child.

Petr Kotlár plays the unnamed central character, a young Jewish boy in Eastern Europe during World War 2 sent by his parents to live with a distant relative, unwittingly compelled to spend much of the narrative trying to retrace his steps home. Each chapter brings with it a new set of disasters and indignities, the boy abused physically, sexually and psychologically by those he encounters. The historical timeframe isn’t identified until well over an hour in: the boy’s dress sense aside, we could be looking at rural life in the early 19th century. The boy is taken in by a gruff healer, then buried up to his neck as part of a folk remedy and attacked by crows. Udo Kier’s jealous miller commits an unspeakably nasty act against the man he thinks his sleeping with his wife, before there’s some relief when the boy is looked after by a friendly bird catcher. The painted bird referred to in the title is a sparrow released with white painted wings, savagely attacked by its own flock. The boy is handed over to German soldiers as a Jew, Stellan Skarsgård’s taciturn officer unable to face shooting him. Brutality, fuelled by alcohol, is a constant.

The Painted Bird BRayThe visuals are astonishing, Mahoul’s chilly monochrome landscapes populated by actors seemingly sourced from a Brueghel canvas. This makes the appearance of Harvey Keitel and Julian Sands in the central chapter distracting, decent enough though they are. Unspeakable sights nestle alongside images of spare beauty, and the grisly set pieces (particularly a harrowing assault on a village by Russian troops) are brilliantly choreographed and edited.

The one constant is Kotlár, convincingly portraying his character’s steady dehumanisation. A long shooting schedule means that we see him grow physically as the film unfolds, eventually beheading a goat (don’t ask) and shooting an anti-semitic market trader, a Red Army soldier having taught him the value of violent retaliation. There’s a glimmer of hope in the final minutes, though we’re still fearful for the boy’s future. As a generous extra, this Eureka/Montage Pictures release includes the two-hour documentary 11 Colours of the Bird, tracing the film’s long gestation and showing how key scenes were realised. Seeing the locations in bright colour comes as a shock, as does the sight of cast and crew smiling and chatting happily off-camera.


Brutality, fuelled by alcohol, is a constant


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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