A young boy runs through the woods, clutching his pet ferret. It’s not clear why he’s running at first, until another boy knocks him to the ground. Before he has time to recover, the small creature he’s holding is snatched away, doused in liquid and set on fire. The high-pitched squeals that follow are drawn out to agonising lengths as the boy watches his only friend burn before his very eyes.
Czech Republic/Slovakia/Ukraine 2019
Director Václav Marhoul
Hans Stellan Skarsgård
Priest Harvey Keitel
Mitka Barry Pepper
Miller Udo Kier
Garbos Julian Sands
Ludmila Jitka Cvancarová
Gavrila Aleksey Kravchenko
Original Czech title Nabarvené ptáče
Most films would gradually build towards something so bleak, but The Painted Bird actually uses this to ease audiences into a series of even more gruelling scenes. In just under three hours, the unnamed boy travels from one violent encounter to the next in desperate need of care. Nine title cards introduce nine potential carers, almost all of whom are despicable in one way or another. From Udo Kier’s eye-gouger to Julian Sands’ sadistic paedophile, these Eastern Europeans have had their humanity been scraped away by war, until all that’s left is a near-bestial desire to inflict pain on others.
Czech director Václav Marhoul created a new language for the actors to use in his script, unwilling to associate real-life nations with the abominations on display here. Such feats of compassion are almost entirely absent from the film itself. When the boy isn’t being raped, beaten or buried from the neck down and left for crows to devour, other characters suffer even worse fates, many of which are too gruesome to share here. It’s no wonder then that multiple critics walked out of early press screenings, even if the numbers involved were exaggerated somewhat. This is torture porn on a grandiose scale, brutally hammering away at viewers: an ordeal that makes Dante’s Inferno seem almost light in comparison.
The only respite in the film’s 169 bleak minutes can be found in its truly gorgeous visuals. Tear your eyes away long enough from the grotesque acts of violence on screen, and you’ll notice the award-worthy black-and-white cinematography. In a tamer film, this masterful camerawork would take centre stage, but here the film’s ethereal beauty instead further emphasises the surreal, dreamlike quality of the violence.
In many ways, The Painted Bird feels untethered from reality, yet the events that unfold within actually happened in real life – at least, to some degree. Marhoul’s third feature is adapted from a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, which in turn was based on a number of survivor accounts from World War II. If audiences have become desensitised to the horrors of the Holocaust and similar acts of cruelty, this film actively tries to bludgeon that numbness out of your system by repeatedly forcing us to confront the very worst of what humanity is capable of.
The meaning behind the film’s title becomes clear early on when a painted starling is pecked to death by its flock simply because it looks different to them. I have no doubt that The Painted Bird itself will be received in a similar way once it’s released into the world at large, but thanks to a stunning performance by Petr Kotlar as the boy, this relentlessly punishing movie deserves to soar regardless of – and perhaps even because of – its harrowing controversies.