The Painted Bird


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Painted Bird
"Smutný gives us faces that will stories even when they're still, the weight of long experience etched into every line." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

An estimated 75 million people were killed during the course of World War Two. 60 million were displaced. It's easy to reflect on the horror of the former statistic and, as a result, what those displaced people went through is often overlooked. With numerous countries in chaos, it took years for many of them to find support and a chance to rebuild their lives. They often died before that happened - from hunger, cold, disease, or as victims of feuding and criminal activity that didn't disappear just because somebody far away proclaimed peace. Particularly hard hit were the thousands of orphans who had to find their way through that chaos with nobody to help them. The Painted Bird follows just one such boy.

Who is he? All we know is that he's Jewish and he was sent far away from home to stay with relatives, on the assumption that he would be safer there. The relatives do not survive. With only a vague notion of where home is and no money or means of transport, the boy sets out to find them. In a typical boy's adventure tale he would have many weird and wonderful encounters on such a quest, and so he does, but although some strangers show him kindness, even at considerable cost to themselves, and although he has experiences other boys might envy, he is also subject to horrendous tortures, some seemingly motiveless, and he witnesses a panoply of cruelties.

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As the boy's odyssey carries him through field and forest, from magic workers' huts to military barracks and beyond, we are treated to one great supporting performance after another from actors including Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik and Julian Sands. Petr Kotlár is perfectly cast in the lead, taking the boy from a state of frightened innocence to a point where he has started to internalise the cruelty around him, raising the question of whether or not he (and many like him, then and now) will ever be able to reintegrate successfully into society, should he survive that long. He's clever, resourceful, quick to adapt, but his desperation leads him too quickly and the weight of successive betrayals and disasters is crushing something inside him.

Whilst this film tests the stamina of the audience in similar fashion, the eclectic nature of the story and Václav Marhoul's direction make it compelling to watch. Thanks to DoP Vladimír Smutný, it's also visually absorbing, with the most evocative cinematography of 2020. Smutný gives us faces that will stories even when they're still, the weight of long experience etched into every line. Over time, young Kotlár's face will come to tell a story too.

Some viewers, it must be noted, have found The Painted Bird too much, leaving the cinema early in a state of distress. War ought to distress us, but this film is more than just a catalogue of horrors. It has something to say about redemption and how we bring society back from the abyss.As such, it's a powerful piece of work, a landmark in Czech cinema.

Reviewed on: 29 Dec 2020
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A lone Jewish boy has to fend for himself in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.

Director: Václav Marhoul

Writer: Jerzy Kosinski, Václav Marhoul, Václav Marhoul

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands, Udo Kier, Aleksey Kravchenko, Tim Kalkhof, Jitka Cvancarová, Pavel Kríz, Petr Vanek, Lech Dyblik, Petr Kotlar, Radim Fiala, Milan Simácek, Filip Kankovský

Year: 2019

Runtime: 169 minutes

Country: Czech Republic, Ukraine, Slovakia

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