There are times when I watch movies that I would consider good, or even great, but which I well and truly do not enjoy. These are movies where I recognize the prowess and artistry of those who made it, but which don’t work for me. Written and directed by Václav Marhoul, “The Painted Bird” might fit into that category, but I’m not sure. Let’s see if we can’t break it down together.
The movie is based on the novel by Jerzy Kosiński and about a young teen (played by Petr Kotlár) who is living with a foster parent in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. It is clearly a tough life and it is made tougher when the foster mother dies and the boy sets out for a new place to live (perhaps his original home).
The audience watches as, without speaking, the boy (we are not given his name during his travels) goes from place to place, constantly encountering new people and having new, horrible, experiences. There are moments when he encounters people who treat him better, but they are few and far between and end badly.
There is a rhythm to “The Painted Bird,” with each encounter had by the boy. The movie puts each into its own chapter, which are titled with the name of the person who is either about to try and kill the boy, or abuse him, or treat him wonderfully and have their own life end unhappily, or… well, you get the idea.
It is probably incorrect to say that each and every encounter ends terribly for someone, usually the boy, but that is certainly the message that stays with the audience – the utter horror of this kid’s existence. It doesn’t matter where he is, whether he’s with Russians or Germans or anyone else, whenever something good happens to him he sure to end up paying for it.
When the movie’s advertising says that it features the likes of Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, or Barry Pepper, that is true, but these individuals come in and out of the movie so quickly. You are not there to watch what happens to Keitel’s character, you are there to see the horror inflicted upon the boy.
There is no doubt that the movie, shot in black and white, is beautiful. Marhoul’s camera finds something amazing in the most rundown of houses or desolate of landscapes and you find yourself staring in wonder. And then the boy gets his head pecked and bloodied by crows or sexually assaulted or any number of other things.
Kotlár imbues this boy with such incredible humanity, such ferocity and kindness. We watch and wonder as the boy experiences some sort of new joy, knowing that horror is right around the corner. We watch as he takes in lesson after lesson and can only guess at what he makes of any of them. If he makes it through this adventure to live an adult life, will he be able to take these things and turn them into something positive or will he visit horrors upon those around him? Kotlár makes us hope for the best, but the movie makes us almost certain of the worst. After all, it’s almost three hours of watching this boy see the absolute worst of what humanity has to offer punctuated by the briefest bits of joy and that joy just makes the bad moments even more dreadful.
No one can question that there is artistry in what Marhoul has wrought. It is an exquisite vision of one teenager’s personal, seemingly unending, hell. And, it would be foolish of us to stick our head in the sand and pretend that horrors such as these do not exist. It is, in fact, our duty as people on this earth to try and prevent them and such a duty requires an acknowledgment of the problem in the first place. There is also an unrelenting nature to how said horrors are portrayed here.
And this is where we started (although I’m not sure we ever left) – the question as to whether it is worth it to the audience. For me, it is not. I get it. I see it. I recognize Kotlár’s success in the role and the beauty Marhoul imparts to the ugliest of scenarios and the fact that terrible things happen in the world. “The Painted Bird” is, I surmise purposefully, a struggle to watch. I have no desire to see it again but is it a great film? I think it is, but being great and being horrific are not mutually exclusive.
photo credit: IFC Films