The Painted Bird (4 stars)

The Painted Bird

Gruelling and graceful WWII drama from Václav Marhoul, with Stellan Skarsgård and Harvey Keitel

The Painted Bird is not for the fainthearted. Václav Marhoul's epic dramatisation of the 1965 Jerzy Kosiński novel is a gruelling endurance test as it follows a young Jewish boy in flight through wartime Eastern Europe. Innocence is scoured away as he encounters the worst of humanity. Compassion is in short supply as he is confronted by mob violence, abuse, rape, death and the many evils that men do.

However relentless the misery becomes, The Painted Bird is also utterly compelling. It has the sweep of a Dickens novel, a Biblical resonance and gorgeous black and white cinematography from Vladimír Smutný that finds beauty and grace in every step of this nightmare journey. It is a film that prompts comparisons with the sombre soul-searching of an Ingmar Bergman or an Andrei Tarkovsky.

The unnamed boy (Petr Kotlár) has been sent to the sanctuary of his aunt's farm. There is a sense of menace and foreboding among the warnings that he should not venture out alone. When it becomes necessary to leave, he embarks on a solitary struggle for survival that unfolds in the bleakest rural landscapes. Passed along like an unwanted parcel, he spends time at the mercy of a travelling shaman (Alla Sokolova), a sadistic miller (Udo Kier), a Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgård), a kindly Catholic priest (Harvey Keitel) and several others.

The Painted Bird is filled with disturbing images as the boy is buried up to his neck and pecked by crows, or a worker has his eyes gouged out by a jealous boss. Like the boy himself, the viewer becomes numb to the horrors. The film starts to feel like a wallow in abject misery but there are moments of kindness and glimmers of decency. The patient viewer is eventually rewarded with a note of fresh hope.

Available to watch in cinemas from Fri 11 Sep.

The Painted Bird

  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • 2h 49min
  • 18
  • Directed by: Václav Marhoul
  • Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper

A cruel drama about a Jewish boy who tries to survive at the end of World War II.