Sunday, November 8, 2020


Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is a feat, above all else, of cinematography and commitment to tone. For it is a bleak story of misery and abuse that runs for nearly three hours in essentially uninterrupted grimness. Only the matter-of-fact beauty of its painterly filmic black and white photography — a scope landscape filled with stormy shadows and pale light dancing in the gorgeous grain — provides a spark of hope in this darkness. It is a litany of calamity — ugly, intimate, personal — on the margins of a grinding historical tragedy. Adapting the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński, it follows a story of a young boy (Petr Kotlár) who is lost, abandoned and adrift in struggling war-torn villages of eastern Europe during World War II. He moves from miserable vignette to more miserable vignette, finding adults at every step consistently misusing him. They mock him, sell him, hit him. He sees violence, torture, and sexual exploitation. He’s even buried in the ground with just his little head poking out above the surface, the better for birds to pick at his scalp while he screams and cries. It’s not always that intense, but it’s all disturbing to one degree or another. Each tableau of human misery is exquisitely photographed and artfully designed, cut and framed in long, languid takes to emphasize the matter-of-fact horror of each moment. It’s unflinching and unsparing, though it’s also carefully arranged such that it’s easy to step back and marvel at the technique and shake ones head at the procession of terrible events that befall this painfully sympathetic vulnerable innocent. Kotlár gives a tremendous child performance, with intensely pensive eyes and an ability to hold a blank face, perfect for maximum Kuleshov effect. He is surrounded by terrific experienced actors — Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsagård, Barry Pepper, and more. But even their more famous visages, sprinkled throughout the film’s endurance-test length, hardly puncture the brutal and brutalizing mood. It’s an endless line of unimaginable physical and emotional pain strung along with the austere beauty of a borrowed Euro-art-house style that connects it to similarly pensive patient devastations a la Bergman or Tarkovsky. Theirs were enlivened by a sense of discovery, thoughtfulness, and humanity. Here, instead, is a film solely focused on the evil that men do. “Isn’t that awful?” is about the extent of its ideas, however masterfully conjured the images.

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