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Film review: The Painted Bird

30 October 2020

Stephen Brown views a disturbing film

Petr Kotlár as the boy in The Painted Bird

Petr Kotlár as the boy in The Painted Bird

VÁCLAV MARHOUL’s The Painted Bird (Cert. 18) is hard going. When the viewer is not watching a dog set alight, there are torture, near-drowning, sexual abuse, eye-gouging, massacres, beatings, being buried alive, etc.: little wonder the walkouts at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Those remaining, however, gave this Best Film nominee a huge ovation.

Watching this film, which lasts nearly three hours, feels like standing at the foot of the cross. Bearing witness to the worst in humanity, and yet hoping for glimpses of redemption, becomes our bounden duty.

A nameless Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) flees across Eastern Europe from Nazis and many more besides. Moments of kindness occur. Stellan Skarsgård, as a German soldier, displays mercy. A priest (Harvey Keitel) befriends the child, saying: “Jesus endured iniquity from many people. Just like you.” The 11-year-old appears to be an elective mute, modelling Isaiah’s despised and rejected Suffering Servant: one cut off from the land of the living, giving his back to the smiters and speaking not a word.

A few others offer some sort of tough love, better than what is regularly meted out. Vladimír Smutný’s startling monochrome photography shows up every physical defect of the boy’s tormentors as if to demonstrate their mendacity. In contrast, he bestows a luminosity on the boy and his benefactors.

What makes the film difficult to endure without compassion fatigue is the extent of the animosity on show: less would have been more. Just about every human encounter is brutal. It is also puzzling that people automatically assume that the boy is Jewish.

Ludek Hudec’s editing observes the cinematic axiom to enter a scene as late as possible and cut at the earliest opportunity. This foreshortening often leaves us uncertain why there are subsequent shocking scenes of hostility, especially those perpetrated by Christians. A congregation fall upon the young lad with violent intent for accidentally disrupting mass. A miller reverently says grace before supper then mutilates another at table. Satisfied that the boy knows how to cross himself, a peasant instructs his charge in lessons of cruelty.

The film is based on a novel by the Polish-American author Jerzy Kosinski, himself once sheltered by Gentiles. The title refers to someone painting a tiny bird, which, on release, is destroyed by the flock — a metaphorical allusion to the way in which humans attack those who appear to be different. Because of the hyperbole of the film, it is best treated as allegory. It has the grandure of an odyssey without the protagonist’s possessing any of Odysseus’s accompanying powers. Instead, the child is more like Oliver Twist, looking when he is still far off for a true father to bring him home.

Although stronger on depicting evil without adequately explaining it, the film has a salvific element, and that depends on how we respond. As Michael Mayne (in Learning to Dance) suggested, suffering with others gives rise to a Godlike quality of compassion. Jitka Cvancarová singing “Horchat Hai Caliptus” provides a plangently fitting conclusion to what in effect is a Mystery play. It is worth seeking out on YouTube if you can’t bear to watch the whole film.

Available in cinemas and on online platforms

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