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Arts & Life

Full Of Misery, 'The Painted Bird' Can Still Dazzle

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IFC Films

The Painted Bird, by Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul is not for the faint of heart. The film comes from a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski about a young boy, possibly Jewish, sent from some eastern European city to a village to keep him safe from the Nazis during World War II.  What follows is a series of encounters of unbearable barbarity. The boy – who has no name and rarely speaks – is beaten and whipped. He’s attacked by ugly villagers with few teeth and grubby faces radiating hatred, and of course fear.

He witnesses life as if humanity has festered entirely within the confines of our reptilian brain. The worst moment may come when a jealous old farmer gouges the eyes of a young man who eyes his wife. But there are other moments to twist your insides and make you wonder if humanity is at all worth maintaining.

The boy, played by 9-year-old actor Petr Kotlár wanders through a world of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition during the Nazi occupation. The boy is a terrible victim, but also an observer of the some of the worst that humanity can serve up. Villagers think the boy is a Roma or maybe a Jew – some kind of a pariah. He’s an alien who can be blamed for bringing disease, evil spirits, and other calamities. The film shows only enough of the Nazis to let you know that their noxious presence is responsible for the impossibly mangled fabric of society, the destruction of fundamental rules of human behavior – and it has unleashed these miseries.

The Painted Bird is hard to watch, and there are stories of audiences in Europe before the pandemic fleeing the theaters, although director Václav Marhoul says those tales are way exaggerated.

As some have, you might write off The Painted Bird as disgusting excess, but it it’s not just that. This may sound absurd, but it’s also a beautiful movie. Events are foul, but with cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, director Václav Marhoul has shaped stunning portraits of people and objects – faces, the grain in the wood of a barn, the contrast of land and always gray sky. Over and over, the interaction of light and shadow gives incredible richness to the experience of seeing this often terrifying and demoralizing series of events.

It’s not just empty aesthetics; it’s not the ignorant or manipulative prettying up of horror to undermine the power of what happens on screen. I think it’s about the contrast between the beauty of the world and the dreadful things people do with it. But beauty is a problem that filmmakers have contended with since the movies began. Beauty is morally non-committal; beauty can override our moral sense.

In 1819, British poet John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” and that’s a dicey proposition.

The movie The Painted Bird yanks you around with its blend of misery and dazzle. The original novel aroused plenty of controversy also. Kosinski was accused of plagiarism and lying about his own life – he and his parents were not set upon by Polish villagers; they were protected by Polish Catholics and a priest at great risk to their own lives. Kosinski, though, said throughout his life that the story is not at all autobiographical. It’s an imaginative look at a world gone insane.

It took director Václav Marhoul over 10 years to make The Painted Bird. And you have to wonder why so much frustration and effort to make a film this hard to watch about events from the 1940s. Marhoul told The Guardian newspaper that while the movie may not be literally true to Jerzy Kosinski’s life; it’s the truth – in a larger sense. And given the world that we live in now, it’s hard to refute what he says.

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