Director: Václav Marhoul
Starring: Petr Kotlár, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands and Barry Pepper
Released: September 11th 2020 in UK cinemas and On-Demand
One film that has been shrouded in divisive discourse recently has been The Painted Bird. Director Václav Marhoul premiered his film at Venice Film Festival 2019, and it has been dubbed a masterpiece by some and tasteless by others. Well, we are here to give you our take.
Based on Jerzy Kosiński novel of the same name the film follows the journey of a boy (Petr Kotlár). Entrusted by his Jewish parents to an elderly foster mother in an effort to escape persecution. Following a tragedy, the boy is on his own. Wandering through the desecrated countryside, the boy encounters villagers and soldiers whose own lives have been brutally altered, and who are intent on revisiting this brutality on the boy. When the war ends, the boy has been changed forever.
The Painted Bird is sadism in carnet. Václav Marhoul creates a very experimental and brutal film that doesn’t necessarily give a reason for being. It challenges you to to look upon the cruelty of man and how history has changed the world. The film does suffer from a repetitive cycle where each scenario feels the same, and each time you can sense what will happen next. War is a horror all by itself, and cinematically this has been highlighted more effectively in films such as Come and See and The Tin Drum. While we have a young boy as our protagonist, Marhoul is bombarding his audience with savage and gruelling imagery but doesn’t deliver a concise message. It never feels it has a purpose, and for a film spanning 169 minutes, it becomes rather painful.
Beyond the narrative issues, Marhoul’s film can be rather captivating, and the sense of craftsmanship is astounding. Drenched in black and white imagery, we are transported into a dark time in human history. The history of the Second World War hangs over the narrative, and there is a feeling of helplessness. Marhoul utilises tight framing around our young protagonist to add claustrophobia and drive the fear of the unknown. He never knows what will happen next, and Marhoul maintains the suspense. The wider world is seen with wide-angles that enhance the haunting views of the war. We can see the young boy at the centre of the frame and a distant wasteland of fear surrounding him.
Petr Kotlár, who plays our protagonist, delivers a performance of great difficulty. For a young man to give a brutally testing performance for The Painted Bird is shocking. The trials and tribulations he suffers during the run-time shows a passion for his craft and a testament to his commitment. Between this remarkable performance and masterful visuals, The Painted Bird is open to interpretation. Other films with similar themes have hit more of a chord, but you can see why some individuals consider it to be a masterpiece. The joy of cinema is that it’s open to interpretation and no opinion is the same. Seek your own opinions but be prepared for a complicated watch.