‘The Painted Bird’ is a bleak story of hopelessness

The Painted Bird (2019) - IMDb

The Painted House (2020)

Directed by Václav Marhoul

Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird”—a title that’s in sharp contrast with its bleak tone—puts an orphan through more unfortunate events than Lemony Snicket ever did. It is three hours of horrendously sad stories, set in Eastern Europe during WWII. It is gorgeously shot on 35mm film in black and white (a fact that, if I hadn’t mentioned it, I fear would have resulted in an attack on my credibility)…but its lack of color only hammers home the point that for this child, there’s no hope to be found.

The death of a boy’s (Petr Kotlár) aunt starts the orphan on a grim adventure throughout Europe’s Communist bloc. He encounters enough suffering for ten lifetimes—he’s beaten, raped, and abandoned more times than I cared to count. In the film’s first scene, his pet is killed—burned alive—by a gang of children. Once, he’s buried up to his neck in dirt until crows begin to peck at his head. He encounters the occasional kindness (from characters played by Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper), but these do-gooders never stick around for long, and then the boy is on his way to find his next awful hardship.

Oscars 2020 Review: THE PAINTED BIRD, A Child's Adventures in ...

Marhoul adapted Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name, though as far as dialogue goes there’s nary enough to comment on. The nameless boy stays basically silent the entire time. Other characters prefer grunts and unintelligible shouting to long-winded monologues. Not that we need words to feel the pain he experiences nearly every day of his journey. That comes through loud and clear.

“The Painted Bird” most definitely isn’t for everyone…is it for anyone? There’s no doubt a lot of care was taken to faithfully adapt Kosiński’s novel, and to tell the story in a way—black and white cinematography, little dialogue—that reflected and honored the tone of the story. But only a sadist could find true enjoyment in the film, I think. Criticisms were lobbed at the book for portraying peasants as backward and brutal, and I’m sure the same arguments could be made about the movie. Did it need to be so cruel? If it doesn’t accurately reflect the historical moment its portraying, is “The Painted Bird” any different from torture porn movies like “Hostel” or “Saw” (though, obviously, it is more dressed-up)? Some viewers love to witness the suffering of others, but is that all “The Painted Bird” is good for? That and some nice camera work? These are questions I’m not ready to answer. If you have three spare hours, check out “The Painted Bird” and come up with your own thesis.


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