Thursday 10 September 2020

The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul, 2019)

Tobruk director Václav Marhoul's new film The Painted Bird enjoyed quite a run on last year's festival circuit, where it impressed and disturbed audiences in cities including London, Venice and Toronto.  Even before anyone had seen the finished film - an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Being There author Jerzy Kosiński - word had it that this was one of the most gruelling cinematic experiences of recent years.  Its festival screenings - which saw countless walkouts from queasy viewers - did much to cement the film's notoriety, but the film's general release was pushed back by nearly six months on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, this Friday finally sees The Painted Bird released in cinemas (and on VOD) courtesy of Eureka Entertainment, who will be handling distribution in the UK and Ireland; the film is due open in the Netherlands next month.

As the Second World War heads towards its conclusion, a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) is sent to stay with his aunt so that he might avoid the attentions of the Nazis.  Whether this plan would have worked or not, we'll never know, as the aunt suddenly dies in the film's early stages, leaving the boy to fend for himself.  And so the unnamed child's odyssey begins, as he trudges his way across the Eastern Front, a pitiless theatre of conflict that could quite easily pass for the unenlightened medieval milieu of Czech classic Marketa Lazarová.  This particular hell is mainly populated by those capable of seemingly boundless cruelty, and any brief flickers of respite stand out like a sore thumb; the few souls who look to help the child include a kindly if misguided priest (Harvey Keitel), a sympathetic German soldier (Stellan Skarsgård), and a taciturn Soviet sniper (Barry Pepper).  But if you start to believe that comfort will always come from those played by the more recognisable actors among the cast, think again: Udo Kier's miller and Julian Sands' farmer stand as two of the film's most sadistic characters, with the latter almost certainly the worst of the boy's tormentors.

With its story of a boy experiencing the full-on horrors of WW2 as he stumbles through the wreckage of eastern Europe, The Painted Bird explicitly recalls Elem Klimov's masterpiece Come and See.  Marhoul wears his key influence on his sleeve, even going as far as to cast Come and See's star Aleksei Kravchenko as a Soviet soldier who befriends our young protagonist.  While this is admittedly a neat touch - here, Kravchenko's character provides exactly the sort of ally his Flyora needed in Klimov's film - you do wonder if such a bold move could backfire on Marhoul; The Painted Bird is no Come and See - then again, what is?  Even if The Painted Bird lacks the gut-punch quality of Klimov's 1985 shocker (which was also based on a book), it is nonetheless a haunting, troubling work, one in which the atrocities depicted on screen stand at complete odds with the quite stunning monochrome cinematography.  How can such terrible things be photographed so beautifully?  It's a trait The Painted Bird shares with the notorious Singapore Sling.

While the excellent lensing does help in providing a bit of a distance - the film certainly feels very grand and cinematic, and you shudder to think what the effect might have been had vérité-style camerawork been employed - there is another welcome layer of artificiality present here: The Painted Bird is the first movie to be filmed in the constructed Interslavic language (think of it as a sort of Slavic Esperanto), with Marhoul's reasoning for this being that he didn't want the barbarity on display to be associated with one particular nation.  While the film is unrelentingly grim, its content isn't quite as difficult to stomach as the hype and walkouts might suggest; frequently, Marhoul cuts away from violent acts or opts to shoot from a merciful angle.  While you're never in any doubt as to what's happened in any given scene, there is a certain restraint at work here; it's a pity that some have looked to reduce the film to little more than a clutch of shocking moments, as it is an even, measured and controlled piece of cinema.  Given its savage nature and lengthy running time (it's a few minutes short of three hours), The Painted Bird is an endurance test, but it's also an extremely worthwhile film, one which deserves a life well beyond the sensational headlines.

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video