Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird” is an impenetrable slog, a parade of agony that begins with a treasured pet being set on fire by village bullies, continues through numerous rape scenes, and fetishizes genocide and slaughter. An adaptation of the novel by Jerzy Kosiński (the subject of its own fair share of controversy, given its initial publication as an autobiographical text and later reveal as a possibly plagiarized work of fiction), “The Painted Bird” is the kind of exploitative cinema that thinks drowning its viewers in increasingly drastic scenes of torture and brutality is inherently righteous. “Look at our terrible history!” “The Painted Bird” screams, but the film’s unrelenting onslaught of revolting ghastliness makes each chapter less impactful than the last.
Set somewhere in Eastern Europe, some time during World War II, “The Painted Bird” introduces us to an unnamed Boy (Petr Kotlár), running for his life through a forest. His feet fall heavy, breaking sticks and crushing dry leaves, and his arms tightly hold a pet ferret to his chest—a beloved animal that the other young boys who catch him rip from his body, douse in gasoline, and set aflame. When the Boy returns to his Aunt Marta (Nina Šunevič), she blames him (“You shouldn’t go out on your own”) and puts him back to work on their little homestead. Each day is a routine of mindless tasks set by Aunt Marta, who is watching the Boy (possibly Jewish, possibly Roma) for his parents, who sent him away for his own safety. The Boy is innocent, easily frightened, mostly obedient, and often mute. He barely speaks, and when a whole day passes during which Aunt Marta doesn’t rouse him from his bed, he is aghast by the discovery of her cold corpse. And being the clumsy child that he is, the lantern he dropped in fear burns the entire house down, sending him on a journey that only gets dourer and more horrendous with each new location.
Each chapter of “The Painted Bird” is identified by the name of the adult who interacts with the Boy, and yet they all blur together given how generous Marhoul is with his depictions of stomach-roiling child exploitation, his characterizations of all women as duplicitous whores, and his recurring sympathy for soldiers whose trade is murder. (It is eyebrow-raising how much the film relies on “loose” women to teach the Boy about humanity’s debasement compared with bemused German and Russian killers, played by Stellan Skarsgård and Berry Pepper, respectively, to teach him about compassion and duty.) At the first village, a healer declares him a vampire and then uses him as her assistant, urging him to act more convincing during her mostly feigned treatments. At another village, the Boy witnesses a man’s (Udo Kier) unhinged violence against his wife and another man. Later, he watches a group of women rape another by kicking a glass bottle into her vagina. (Approximately half of the dialogue of this film is phrases like “You filthy slag” and “You dirty bitch.”) Still later, animal abuse, incest, bestiality, pedophilia, murder, more animal abuse, more pedophilia, more murder. On and on and on, a repetitious rhythm that never breaks away from the established grotesque formula.
To be sure, a movie about World War II and the Holocaust cannot be a superficially jolly affair (consider the backlashes against “Life is Beautiful” and “Jojo Rabbit” for trying various versions of that), and a film that depicts bad people is not necessarily a reflection of the film’s own morality, its “rightness” or its “wrongness.” But “The Painted Bird” becomes so caught up in tediously recreating the anguish of this time that it never pauses to do anything else. Cinematographer Vladimír Smutný is responsible for some stark, gorgeous imagery that makes the most out of the film’s 35-mm black-and-white format: The Boy, a lone figure interrupting a hegemony of rushes, dropping a little toy boat into a trickling stream. His innocence already chipped away, the Boy is buried in a hole in the ground, only his head visible above the soil, blood pouring into his eyes as he’s pecked at by hungry crows. Fleeing up a tree and laying on a branch to sleep, he sees bright-white bombs dropped onto a village far away, their trails illuminating the night. Those compositions are eerie and unforgettable, but they’re overshadowed by the film’s other clunkier elements, and the predictable ways it shows us the Boy’s hardened corruption: a soldier’s gifted gun replacing a rocking horse toy; his burgeoning sexual jealousy; the way he recreates scenes of his own abuse. Because the boy rarely speaks, it falls on Kotlár to do all the work through his body posturing and facial expressions, but his stare-heavy reactions of shock, disgust, and desperation are increasingly ineffective as the film’s scenarios become progressively uglier.
That opening scene, with the ferret screaming and rolling around on the forest floor, fruitlessly trying to put out the fire that is killing it, is basically “The Painted Bird” in a nutshell: Awful thing happens to an innocent person or creature; their fight against that is pointless; the world is garbage. With those perspectives firmly in place, Marhoul trudges on and drags viewers along with him. If there was some sort of grander message in “The Painted Bird” about the hypocrisy of the Church, or the feral nature of Eastern Europe after World War II, or the selfless survivalism of man, then it should have been made clear at some point after the first murder, the first rape, or the first instance of staggering savagery. But the three hours of “The Painted Bird” are never more creative than that, and the cruelty being the point isn’t enough motivation to suffer through Marhoul’s monstrous ode to human torment. [D+]
“The Painted Bird” is in select theaters, drive-ins, and on VOD now.