The Painted Bird – Film Review
Beautifully filmed in black and white, those moments of beauty in The Painted Bird are punctuated by a bleak tale of cruelty and loneliness within a World War II setting in Eastern Europe. Reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman, in its exploration of the extremes of the human reaction towards strangers, The Painted Bird is equally as extreme in many places and just as disturbing. The main difference being that it is a young, unsupervised boy, flowing a tragedy, who is subject to the whims and mercy of those he meets on his journey to find his way home; many of whom seek to exploit the situation and his vulnerability.
The Painted Bird offers a tough, unflinching watch and will affect many although it does maintain objectivity and the protagonist is simply symbolically referenced throughout the film as ‘The Boy’. The film almost seems to revel in its shocking nature as there are descriptions within its publicity material of the many occasions in which people have walked out of screenings. Given the brutality depicted towards a child, it is easy to understand such reactions given The Painted Bird’s compelling but anxiety inducing scenes of neglect and abuse. Effectively, The Painted Bird presents a tale of good vs evil by its exploration of the evil that lurks within human hearts, particularly from individuals who are not the perceived enemy during periods of instability and chaos in history.
The result is that the extremity of the behaviours towards a young boy, where there is always that sense of hope that he will be the recipient of some kindness, does force the audience to become inwards looking and examine their own behaviour. The Painted Bird is effective in that sense in providing that platform for introspection but are such extreme examples of the abuse of someone’s position towards a vulnerable person absolutely necessary?
The slow pacing of The Painted Bird belies its shocking content and there are some violent scenes which just seem to linger beyond the levels of comfort. Director Václav Marhoul seems to prefer to have the audience shell shocked, which in some scenes seems to work as part of the journey encountered by The Boy. However, there are many instances that quite frankly seemed ludicrously contrived with high degrees of exaggeration. What is striking, however, is the level of detachment that can be observed through the camera work which appears to operate on a parallel to the growing detachment developing within The Boy following the subjugation experienced.
Interestingly, Vladimir Smutny’s approach, as Director of Photography, to filming such apparent evils is to adopt the angles from the boy’s point of view and with long angles similarly depicting that distance from the unfolding uncomfortable activities. It is a technique that works in a film of this nature which permits the cinematography to focus on the beauty of the filming instead of the depravity of certain scenes and creates a more palatable viewing experience in some ways. The naturalistic filming style and minimal dialogue equally serve to ramp up that sense of dread to breathtaking effect and it is quite simply an aesthetically stunning film.
Based on the novel of the same title by Jerry Kosiński, The Painted Bird operates as a modern day horror. Interestingly, it is not the effects of war that are the most horrifying although The Boy does traverse these, it is all of the other seemingly ‘ordinary’ people and their acts of depravity and cruelty behind closed doors that are truly shocking. The fact that it does not register that this is a young boy but is merely viewed as an object for their own gratification/ abuse to be directed towards merely compounds that notion of having the ability to examine our own behaviour and capabilities when placed in similarly unknown, tense situations.
Just as it is shown that nature is cruel to those fledgling organisms, with a particularly brutal scene as a life lesson, so too can humans be just as cruel. Such scene also provides the film with its title and highlights the recurring theme of the ‘other’ and the human fear towards ‘otherness’ which may lead to cruelty in a bid to control such fear.
Filming in black and white makes The Painted Bird very striking and ensures that we cannot turn a blind eye to those onscreen terrors and prejudices. The question equally does arise within the film as to whether there may also be characters that are deliberately choosing not to react to the surrounding terrors facing The Boy and the abuse and are therefore unknowingly complicit. Are we also, as the audience, choosing not to see certain scenes within this film so as to remain detached from its depiction of horrors that still occur to this day? Certainly, The Painted Bird is an impressively ambitious and thought-provoking piece of work in its ability to capture those negative human emotions without relying on huge swathes of exposition and treats its audience as adults.
Due to the concept of that unearthed darkness within humans’ hearts and the expansive range of the action with characters ranging from the soldiers from various country’s missions, The Painted Bird delights in not having an obvious perspective as to whom the ‘enemy’ may be which lends itself further to a war time horror trope. Such intense approach is assisted by the stellar cast which includes Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgaard and The Painted Bird may have faltered under the heavy weight of its emotional subject matter without such tremendous performances.
Indeed, returning to that connection to the film Dogville, both Stellan Skarsgaard and Udo Kier worked within such film and indeed its detached film style regarding the atrocities encountered by its protagonist may have influenced this film adaptation of The Painted Bird.
Despite its uncompromising subject matter, The Painted Bird is an impressively well made film with a mesmerising performance from Petr Kotlár as The Boy within his first acting role. The Painted Bird is a worthwhile watch for its stylistic approach and its stellar cast. However, it is more likely to appeal to fans of the novel, Lars Von Trier fans and others that have a very strong disposition as it is heartwrenching, raw and unflinching.