They said it could never happen ... a filmed version of late Polish author Jerzy Kosinski's hugely controversial 1965 novel of the same name. Well, fuck the haters. It's here. It's arrived.
The opening scene sees a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) running through the woods, pet ferret in his arms. He's being chased by a group of lads who catch him, toss him to the ground and give him a good kicking. They then douse his pet in petrol and set the writhing beast alight.
When he returns to his aunt Marta's (Nina Sunevic) rural home, a remote farmhouse, she tells him it's his own fault for wandering out on his own. The unnamed boy's life is not an easy one - Marta barely speaks to him, forcing him to live in virtual silence and isolation. He works hard on the farm, assisting in the slaying of chickens and so forth. It's little surprise then that he naively draws a picture of him and his absent parents with the words "come fetch me" scrawled across it and places it in a toy boat, pushing it downstream hoping that mum and dad will come to his rescue.
At this juncture I should perhaps point out that we are in an unspecified part of Eastern Europe at the tail-end of the Second World War. The boy has been entrusted to a foster parent, known to him as "aunt" Marta, in a bid for him to avoid being persecuted as a Jew. But Marta shows him no compassion and simply works him like a slave.
That is, until the evening he finds her slumped dead in her rocking chair and, in the ensuing confusion, accidentally sets fire to her house - burning it to the ground.
This is just the first of several vignettes which will make up the details of the boy's epic journey, as he treks across Europe from town to town, through various violent episodes, trying to find his way home.
It's an episodic yarn, divided by character headings which act as chapters introducing us to notable people that the boy meets on his way. The terrains this lad traverses are largely lawless ones, poverty-stricken and war-torn ... so you can imagine how harsh some of his encounters are.
For example, after waking up shivering beneath a tree the morning after burning Marta's home down, the boy staggers to the next village. Immediately an angry mob circles him, prodding him with pitchforks and sticks. He's tossed to the floor with a sack over him and whipped severely by one of the villagers. Afterwards, he's taken to the lair of local faith healer Olga (Alla Sokolova) who inspects the lad closely and declares him to be a vampire. Buying him from the terrified villagers, Olga then ties a rope around the boy's midriff and drags him on a hefty overnight hike to an old dark cabin in the next village. Tending to two sick elderly people, Olga involves the boy in her strange ritualistic practices. Alas, the treatment doesn't work and the corpse's bodies are later seen being tossed onto a communal bonfire with dozens more bodies. Time for Olga to move on.
She leaves the village by dusk, taking the boy with her - albeit she has to drag him on a cart, as by this time he's fallen ill himself with a fever. She gets to an appropriate stretch of land in the countryside and stops to dig a hole, afterwards proceeding to bury the boy neck-deep in it. And then, of course, she fucks off to let nature take its course.
It certainly seems like that's going to happen too, when come the next morning the boy wakes to curious crows circling him. They eventually muster the courage to attack him, pecking relentlessly at his head. Fortunately he's saved by a passing farmer.
But before long the boy has attracted trouble again, so scared by the aggressive approach of a stranger by the lake that he leaps into the water and is taken further downstream, where he's eventually taken in by a miller (Udo Kier).
Sadly, this latest household doesn't offer much more in the way of comfort. It's pretty quickly established that the miller suspects his wife (Michaela Dolezalova) of having it off with their beefcake handyman (Zdenek Pecha). So, as witnessed through the eyes of our child protagonist, a tale of wife-beating and eye-gouging unfurls.
Sure enough, the boy packs up what little belongings he has, and hightails it out of there. Wandering the barren European landscapes, in due course he happens upon the relatively kind aviculturist Lekh (Lech Dyblik). Well, kind...ish. This is the guy who captures a wild bird, coats it in white paint and then releases it to fly and join its flock. Not recognising it as one of their own, the other birds swarm around it and peck it to death - much to the boy's horror. A telling metaphor, which also provides a perfect title for the film.
Anyhow, as you can almost certainly predict by now, things don't end up so well in Lekh's abode. Lekh's story involves a loose woman named Ludmila (Jitka Cvancarova) who he takes in as his lover; her seduction in the meantime of their village's younger men; the revolting punishment doled out on Ludmila for said transgressions by the mothers of the village; Lekh's subsequent suicide. Once again, the boy is left to be on his own and far from home.
If it sounds by this point that I'm spoiling the entire film for you, rest assured ... my synopsis hasn't even reached the sixty minute mark yet. And this film is almost three hours long. You still have a lot of misery and suffering to come. Not to mention, a lot of intriguing characters that you're yet to meet - including Nazi-with-a-conscience Hans (Stellan Skarsgard); a kindly priest (Harvey Keitel) who nevertheless makes the unwise move of entrusting the boy in the care of paedophile Garbos (Julian Sands); child-molesting, goat-fucking Labrina (Julia Valentova); Soviet sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper) who cares for the boy for a short while in-between killing residents of yet another European village in cold blood - to name but a handful.
Writer-producer-director Vaclav Marhoul apparently laboured for eleven years to bring this troublesome beast to the screen. The results are as impressive as they are at once aesthetically beautiful, brutal and grim.
Told in episodic fashion, THE PAINTED BIRD offers plenty of striking monochrome compositions while spinning its cruel yarn in a very carefully considered manner. There's barely any music, quite a few passages of almost total silence and a very deliberate pace which helps drum home the horrors of war as soon through the eyes of a child.
Infused with an oppressive tone from the very start, THE PAINTED BIRD ladles on the suffering with one cruel experience after another. Each episode is scarcely connected to the last one, ensuring our understanding of events is just about as comprehensible as the poor boy's. We catch glimpses of humanity here and there, but they truly are brief. Kotlar is a revelation, carrying much of the action in a stoic manner while hardly uttering a word throughout. The high profile cameos of Skarsgard, Keitel, Sands and Pepper are just that - cameos - and yet every one of them makes a profound impression.
It's impossible not to reference the 1985 Russian film COME AND SEE. It is arguably the greatest anti-war film of all time, and certainly the most affecting that's ever observed such atrocities through the eyes of a child. THE PAINTED BIRD is similarly unsparing but has the distance of being filmed in (admittedly exquisite) black-and-white. And yet I suspect many viewers will still find it to be gruelling fare.
Purely down to its aesthetics and historical setting, the film also brought to mind Michael Haneke's THE WHITE RIBBON. Well, both films would make a fine triple bill alongside COME AND SEE as the bleakest "war movie" related evening ever.
However, THE PAINTED BIRD is perhaps not as jarring as initial rumours suggested (early film festival screenings reportedly provoked rather extreme reactions). It is violent in tone throughout, but surprisingly a lot less graphic than you'd expect. Despite staying true to the unrelenting content of Kosinski's book, it applies the approach of strong suggestion for the most part. Which is harrowing enough in most instances, given the quality of performances, editing and direction.
What it is, an extremely well-made achievement which looks like it could have been made at any time between the 60s and now. It works well as a savage indictment of war but manages to engage the viewer without alienating us with its cavalcade of abuse from start to end.
Marhoul's film doesn't so much depict war itself - there's very little gunplay - but puts on display the devastation left behind in war-torn territories, and the loss of humanity brought about by that as people resorted to base instincts to survive.
I've no doubt in my mind it's a sincere film. It's certainly a faithful adaptation, and an impressive endeavour. Whether it's "enjoyable" enough to warrant multiple viewings, I'm yet to determine. But it has my utmost appreciation, if not my entire love. Just yet.
THE PAINTED BIRD comes to UK blu-ray courtesy of those fine folk at Eureka!. Their disc is region B encoded.
Benefitting from a full 1080p HD MPEG4-AVC encode, the film looks predictably stunning in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Shot on 35mm film, the contrast of the beautiful black-and-white photography is handled expertly, with fine detail and a most pleasing representation of light and shade throughout. Offering plentiful detail and depth, the picture quality is sharp and free from any digital distraction for the duration of playback. The film is presented fully uncut at 169 minutes and 23 seconds in length.
A DTS-HD Master Audio track retains the film's original audio, which offers a Gumbo of Czech, German, Latin and Russian languages. Never fear, the optional English subtitles provided are easy to read at all times and will carry you through.
Although the static main menu doesn't offer a scene selection menu, the film does come equipped with 18 chapters - only accessible via your remote control's fast-forward button.
Bonus features may sound paltry on the surface, but read on.
"11 Colors of the Bird" is a whopping 125-minute documentary detailing the making of Marhoul's epic film.
This purports to chart the 11-year process it took the director to bring his vision of Kosinski's novel to the screen, but in reality skips over the first several years pretty quickly and decides instead to focus on when the film went into production and very quickly afterwards started its shoot in 2016. It's all the better for adopting this approach.
Shot in HD and mostly in colour (occasionally dipping into arty monochrome), this feature-length expose is a fascinating proposition. There's a wealth of behind-the-scenes footage on offer which, thankfully, reveals the shoot as being one of warmth and laughter ... even though the settings often look a little chilly. The crew even managed to have regular piss-ups at local taverns by the looks of it.
While Marhoul is very vocal about his motivations and methods, there's also a welcome abundance of input from Kotlar. Naturally, the fly-on-the-wall style footage follows him a lot, and his narration offers a fascinating perspective of what it was like to be a child filming such an ostensibly brutal film (he was nine when shooting commenced).
It appears to have been a very paradoxically friendly shoot, with Kotlar offering lots of fond memories while sometimes filming events himself for posterity on his mobile 'phone. While being thorough in detail - costumes, locations, production design, performances are all satisfyingly addressed along the way - this is also a very warm, encouraging feature. It comes in its original language (a mixture of native dialects) with easily readable forced English subtitles.
What follows is a formidable black-and-white stills gallery further reinforcing how amicable the production was. If I counted correctly, there are no less than 300 photographs on offer here.
Also included with this release is a 28-page collectors' booklet containing a pertinent essay by James Wood, lots of attractive photographs and technical credits for the disc.
The packaging is nice too, the clear keepcase being housed in a bonus slipcase with exclusive artwork.
There aren't many films of this scope and ambition, realised with such beauty and sincerity, being made these days. It may not be the height of entertainment but for its aesthetic qualities and hard-hitting anti-war content alone, along with a startling performance from its young lead, I'd recommend THE PAINTED BIRD. And Eureka!'s blu-ray is a perfect place to start.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Eureka Entertainment|