“#‘Painted Bird’ review: This brilliant shocker got walkouts at film fests”
July 15, 2020 | 3:44pm
Running time: 169 minutes. Not rated.
Oh, the movie is brilliant without a doubt, but it’s dotted with such shocking moments, and there isn’t a whiff of pretentiousness to be found. Only guts and incredible visuals.
Based on the World War II novel by Jerzy Kosiński, director Václav Marhoul’s haunting film is an obstacle course of appalling horrors, and a young boy’s journey to the center of despair.
However, the drama is way better than many movies that seek to unsparingly depict the ugliness of war, only to wind up sending its audience sprinting to the ugliness of the bathroom. In “The Painted Bird,” humanity’s moral depravity has never looked so stunning.
The epic story follows a boy named Joska (Petr Kotlár) — thought to be Jewish or Romany — separated from his parents in an unspecified Eastern European country, surviving through a war-torn hellscape.
With shades of “Mother Courage,” Kosiński’s dire vision holds that one’s own people are as deadly a threat as the Nazis or the Cossacks. The lesson here is to trust no one.
Little Joska witnesses his aunt burn, and another caretaker kills himself by hanging. He watches a man have his eyes pried out with a spoon, only to be noshed on by a kitty. The boy is beaten, raped by men and women and verbally abused by everybody.
He encounters a few sort-of nice people — an enemy soldier (Stellan Skarsgård) and a priest (Harvey Keitel). But these guys ain’t Daddy Warbucks, and I wouldn’t bet on the sun coming out tomorrow.
Needless to say, a child’s agony is hard to watch, but as deftly as it is directed by Marhoul, it’s not at all exploitative. There were reportedly some walkouts when the film screened in Venice and Toronto last year. Those defectors are wimps. Marhoul is no empty provocateur, and his film is a conscientious, superbly told story — not “House of 1,000 Corpses.”
Adding to the mesmerizing look is a cast that must’ve been gathered via time machine. These downtrodden villagers have the tired, hopeless faces of an attic photograph, and their acting is uncomfortably natural.
Holding it all together is 13-year-old Kotlár, who says very little over the film’s three hours, but his face says it all. Watching his eyes harden with each passing hardship is tragic — and sensational.