When The Painted Bird ends, there’s such a corrupted feeling about everything for a few moments, as if we don’t deserve the privilege of watching someone go through such atrocities when someone lived them. It’s worth noting that the events of the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, of which the film adapts, aren’t autobiographical, but others more than likely lived out horrifyingly similar situations.
The Painted Bird is about a nameless young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) and his terrifying fight to survive in war-torn eastern Europe during World War II. We meet him left in the wake of his parents leaving him in the hands of an elderly woman, and things quickly go awry seeing the boy become homeless and hopeless facing persecution at every turn. Quickly, his innocence decays, leaving us only a husk of a child who fights horror after horror with little to no chance of escape.
This is the most challenging viewing experience of any film I’ve ever seen. There were many moments where my hand rose to shield my eyes as startlingly real atrocities occurred. Václav Marhoul directs with such a heavy hand that throughout the impact only rises and rises to a melancholy crescendo. There is no pure instance of love in the harsh world of The Painted Bird, what few moments there are always come with a catch.
The purest love comes from a priest played wonderfully by Harvey Keitel, yet he is sickly and unfortunately ignorant seeing him leave as quickly as he arrives. Without him, there is little to no light in amongst the dark. Throughout there is brutal murders, assaults, a case of incest and one of bestiality and even an eye-gouging that would make Game of Thrones fans shudder.
Yet for all the desire to disengage and look away from this hellscape, you never do. You peak through your fingers as they cover your eyes, you fear even to blink in case someone finally ends the odyssey of the boy. In a film so full of desolation and death anything is possible, which forms an uncommonly engaging film.
And none of that would work so well without its star. Debuting actor Petr Kotlar isn’t called on to do much, in fact he hardly has any lines and rarely shows emotion. Despite this, he still stands tall as a performer, and it’s his ability to make himself absent that makes his performance so compelling.
He manages to come across as if the real little boy on the inside, whom we glimpse at the beginning, has run away and is outside of the body that we see for the rest of the film. He wholly encompasses tragic transformation and embraces his duality as it all comes full circle for the briefest of moments at the end, it’s that brilliant. For an actor so young this is an unbelievably complete and controlled performance that would take a level of maturity most teens aren’t capable of let alone 9-year-olds.
There can be no understating how important of a story this is. People need to see this as a timely reminder for why we should always actively avoid war. It isn’t worth stealing the youth from unknowing children, nothing is. Yes, many disgraceful acts are unique to World War II, and the world will hopefully never see the likes of them again. But more war breeds more death and breeds more stories like this one; we must never let humanity become a monstrosity in this way again, and The Painted Bird speaks more to that than any film ever made.
The Painted Bird will stay with you long after the credits roll, more than likely it will stay with you forever. Which is good, let it serve as a reminder never to let this happen again.
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