(director/writer: Václav Marhoul; screenwriter: based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel; cinematographer: Vladimir Smutny; editor: Ludek Hudec; music: Petr Ostrouchov; cast: Petr Kotlár (Nameless Boy), Nina Shunevych (Marta), Alla Sokolova (Olga), Udo Kier (Miller), Lech Dyblik (Lekh), Jitka Čvančarová (Ludmila), Stellan Skarsgård (Hans), Harvey Keitel (Priest), Julian Sands (Garbos), Júlia Valentová Vidrnáková (Labina ), Aleksey Kravchenko (Gavrilla), Barry Pepper (Mitka), Michaela Doležalová (Miller’s Wife), Zdeněk Pecha (Worker), Petr Vaněk (Nikodem); Runtime:169; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Václav Marhoul; Silver Screen; 2019-Czech Republic/Ukraine/Slovakia-in Slavic Esperanto, Czech, German, Russian dialogue with English subtitles-B/W)

“Without compromise in its bleakness.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A harrowing Holocaust survival story shot in black-and-white and in 35mm. It’s without compromise in its bleakness, and its single purpose is to show only how inhumanly treated is a lost lad. Its anger is not directed at governments or anywhere else but in the way no one had the decency to do the obvious right thing and help a lad in a difficult spot.

Czech director-writer Václav Marhoul (“To The Woods”/”Tobruk”) does a masterful job with its frightful visuals and in the intense telling of the compelling narrative.It’s an outstanding drama, one worth seeing lest we forget how tragic the Nazi terror actually was to the innocent souls in its path. But the flawed film, just too bleak for comfort, never reaches masterpiece status because it’s such a gruesome watch.

At the Venice Film Festival a large number of the audience couldn’t sit through the grimness of the three-hour movie and left. But there were mostly rave reviews from the critics. The sparse, lyrical and uncompromising adaption tells of the harrowing journey of a nameless Boy (nonprofessional Petr Kotlár, in a spectacular role, always with an unsmiling poker face), left alone in the ruins of World War II and sent for his own safety (indicating but never saying if he was either a Jew or a gypsy, though it seems obvious he’s Jewish) to live in an unnamed remote part of Eastern Europe with his elderly peasant Aunt Marta (Nina Sunevic).

The Painted Bird is based on Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial World War II 1965 novel about a young and nameless Boy who wanders through a rural Eastern Europe that has been ravaged and dehumanized by the war, after sent by his parents to live with his aunt to escape their fate under Nazi occupation. He’s left to his own devices when he arrives at his aunt’s farmhouse and finds her dead. In his nervous reaction, the Boy accidentally burns down the house and must wander over the hellish terrain alone in order to survive.

The linear structure provides us with nine chapter headings (each named after the character in it that the Boy meets) separating the film’s episodic stories.

In the opening scene, before discovering his aunt’s body, the Boy is chased through the woods by a gang of anti-Semitic boys who beat him and then set his pet ferret on fire.

What follows is one horror story after another. When the Boy is captured in the woods by cruel and ignorant villagers, he’s sold to an itinerant elderly witch doctor (Ala Sakalova) to become her slave/apprentice. Later he finds shelter with a psycho miller (Udo Kier). We witness a violent act (eyeballs gouged) in response to the miller’s jealous rage toward the man he suspects is sleeping with his wife.

The Boy’s adventure continues with a brief stay with a lonely old bird-keeper (Lech Dyblik),who is having an affair with the forest woman (Jitka Ĉvanĉarová). It ends tragically when some irate townswomen get their revenge on them. The film’s title is derived from the bird-keeper taking pleasure in daubing paint on a bird and sending it to meet its flock, only to watch the birds viciously attack the unrecognized painted bird as an alien.

In the next sequence we witness Jews leaping off a moving train and ruthlessly mowed down by Nazis with machine guns.

The Boy is rescued from the Germans by a friendly Catholic priest (Harvey Keitel, in a dubbed voice) who only then entrusts him with a savagely abusive congregant (Julian Sands), who rapes and beats him regularly.

The horror stories go on and on until a numbness should set in for the viewer who sticks it out to the end. The lesson learned is that we see how negative things are if the world never speaks up about injustice.

By the end of the haunting journey, the Boy meets a weary Russian soldier sniper (Barry Pepper) who gifts him a gun. This is ironically viewed as an act of kindness.This gift probably goes as the only ray of hope that comes out of such a grim film, but with the hope that love, kindness and compassion are better gifts to give the world than guns.

Stellan Skarsgård has a cameo as a stoic and kind German soldier, who shows us not all the Germans were bad.

The Painted Bird

REVIEWED ON 9/7/2019       GRADE: A