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The Painted Bird is a deliberately punishing watch, but it is also something of an essential viewing experience.Jan Dobrovský/Supplied

  • The Painted Bird
  • Directed by Vaclav Marhoul
  • Written by Vaclav Marhoul, adapted from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski
  • Starring Petr Kotlar, Udo Kier and Barry Pepper
  • Classification R; 169 minutes


3.5 out of 4 stars

The Painted Bird will make you miserable. Watching it is akin to chugging back the black ooze that pumps through humanity’s dark heart, swallowing the vile and toxic swill hard, and asking for more, and more and more until 2 hours 49 minutes have elapsed. But sometimes we need to feel awful. Sometimes we need to face the world at its worst. Sometimes we need to watch a film like The Painted Bird.

In case you doubted the stomach-churning bona fides of Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s new film, it only takes a quick glance at the frenzied reports from last year’s film festival circuit to confirm its baked-in notoriety: “Walk-outs,” “controversial” and “pornographic” are the words populating most of the film’s press, with audiences in Venice and Toronto apparently so offended by The Painted Bird that they could take no more.

While this seems like clever marketing akin to any number of long-ago stunts employed by grindhouse producers and other cinematic charlatans – “SEE THE MOVIE THAT NO AUDIENCE CAN OUTLAST!” – after actually taking in The Painted Bird, I can confirm that the horror more or less matches the headlines.

Yet, like the slickest of shock-value artists, Marhoul doesn’t bathe in depravity head-on so much as he alludes to it. While the film is filled with myriad acts of mutilation, murder, torture, bestiality and gang rape – all witnessed from the perspective of a child – the director urges his audience to use their imaginations to fill in many of the visual blanks, with much of the awfulness occurring just an inch outside the camera’s frame. Still, if I was locked inside a dark theatre with the epic-length black-and-white drama, I might eye the exit every 20 minutes, too.

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The picture possesses an undeniable sense of black-and-white grandeur, allowing the cheerless, plundered landscape to look paradoxically beautiful.Jan Dobrovský

Marhoul’s drama is a deliberately punishing watch, but it is also something of an essential viewing experience – and probably one that is healthier to endure at home while cinemas are shuttered. It benefits from frequent breaks so audiences can catch their breath, let their minds process the chaos they just witnessed (or were compelled to imagine that they just witnessed), and come to terms with humanity’s capability for unprecedented cruelty. Hard truths for a hard time and all that clichéd noise, sure, but cinema should never cauterize itself to simply be a vehicle of escapism and comfortable trauma. We need to grasp for the extremes just as much.

Marhoul seems to grudgingly recognize his film’s digestibility issues, as he breaks up his adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s acclaimed, problematic 1965 novel into several short chapters: Each new instalment is titled with the names of the men and women who a young unnamed Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) encounters as he wanders through an anonymous Eastern European country. But this episodic construction is the director’s first and last concession to easing audiences into a tale of war and madness.

After circumstances force the boy to flee from his protective, elderly caregiver in the countryside, an intense fascistic nightmare envelops the child’s – and the country’s – existence. There are rural villagers so crazed by the threat of the “other” that they label the boy a hell-spawn, burying him up to his neck to cast out the demonic presence. There is the hard-working miller who takes the boy in afterward, but becomes so enraged with jealousy that his frustrations boil over into an act of disgusting brutality. There is the pedophile who recognizes a cruel opportunity in the boy’s arrival, while his countrymen are preoccupied by conflict.

Occasionally, the boy encounters a kind or sympathetic figure, such as the ailing priest who attempts to convert the child or the lonely bird keeper who teaches the boy a dangerous but important life lesson, but they are either dispatched with quickly or are so blind to the perversions of their fellow man that their actions place the boy in mortal jeopardy many times over. Very quickly, the boy – and the audience – accept that there is no actual escape.

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While largely comprised of performers unknown to Western audiences, every now and then a familiar American or European face will pop up, such as Harvey Keitel.Jan Dobrovský

With the exception of German- and Russian-speaking soldiers, Marhoul has his characters speak in an unclassifiable blend of Slavic languages. In interviews, the director has said that the linguistic device was employed so that no particular country or ethnicity would be indicted in his film’s myriad atrocities. But in addition to feeling reminiscent of Agota Kristof’s trilogy of Holocaust novels that followed in the spirit of Kosinski’s work – in which no locale is ever named, no language ever defined – the decision has the chilling effect of shaming absolutely everyone.

Indeed, there are a number of deceptive tricks of the medium being played here by Marhoul – and I’m unsure as to whether the filmmaker should be applauded or condemned for entertaining such playfulness. For starters, most of the performers are unknown to Western audiences, yet every now and then a familiar American or European face will pop up – Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, a very Udo Kier-y Udo Kier – and spark a sort of cognitive cinematic dissonance.

Shot on crisp 35-millimetre film, the picture possesses an undeniable sense of black-and-white grandeur, allowing the cheerless, plundered landscape to look paradoxically beautiful. Meanwhile, the subtitles’ font size is so tiny that the dialogue is barely visible at all, which is either an acknowledgement that words mean nothing in wartime, or that if you need to look at the darkness of our world, then you best look as hard as you possibly can.

Marhoul probably wants you to consider all this filth and beauty – the difficulty and simplicity of by-any-means-necessary survival – at the same time, and his either/or approach to filmmaking is as compelling as it is frustrating.

Late in the film, a Soviet sharpshooter played by Barry Pepper – an actor best known for his role as an American sharpshooter in Saving Private Ryan – tells the boy to “remember this” as he enacts bloody revenge upon a group of locals who killed his comrades. The boy, played with remarkable stoicism by Kotlar, doesn’t verbally respond. But, of course, he obeys and he understands. And just as the child will never forget what he saw that day, I will never be able to shake The Painted Bird.

The Painted Bird is available digitally on-demand starting July 17

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