The Painted Bird is a metaphorical abyss. It’s a god-forsaken hole of suffering where youth goes to slaughter. The detritus of the human spirit is cast aside along the Eastern European countryside. A boy travels for nine chapters, seeking shelter and sanctuary, and is brutally abused and dehumanized. Adapted from the text of Jerzy Kosiński’s horror story (that the author says is autobiographical, although we can not want to imagine that), the darkest pit of human nature is explored. It is the kind of film you should only watch once or not watch at all. It requires a lot of the viewer, but most of all, it demands an impassioned response.
Czech cinematographer Vladimír Smutný is the hero of the picture. Shot in stunning monochrome 35mm, every scene is frameable. The style, bold and unrestrained, is the heart of the artistic statement. If everything that happens in the movie is insurmountably difficult to watch, subversively, it is, at least, always dramatically beautiful doing it. Stark in composition, the picture visualizes the tragic horrors of war, writ large, examining the fallout and moral decompensation that comes in the aftermath. Whether it’s his keen eye for faces or the perfectly photographed environment — the film is emboldened with a sharp sense of place, always — Smutný puts genius to screen.
The film grants no further reprieve. Director Václav Marhoul instills it with incessant dread. The boy (Petr Kotlár) has to be good for three hours, and always is. His supporters are diligent, and even its foreign actors (i.e. Harvey Keitel) give Slavic performances, committed both to tone and language. Terrifying and hard to watch, The Painted Bird shares the headspace of a Pasolini picture. It admits its influences outright — using “come and fetch me,” both as its central provocation and callback to the holistic influence of Come and See (1985). It’s playing with a loaded deck.
It is hard to ask anything of a film that is not intended by the filmmakers. They have made the outsider art that they wanted to. To inflict our own feelings and want, for humanity and compassion, and something to lighten the load of the three hour runtime, is also to expect a different movie. It could not be made within the framework of an American system, or more simply, would not be made. It has to come from the existentialism of an Eastern European philosophy, from a land that has felt what home-spun wars do to a population. Every country carries the distinct history and understanding of itself, and The Painted Bird is a specialized work that requires its own quintessential perspective. It never does try to please us or placate the expectations of the audience, and for that, it is also brave art existing on its own terms.
The Painted Bird is asking a lot of an audience, to sit patiently through three hours of unrelenting abject horror, for the reward of its cinematography. It is a remarkable experience, still, and as deeply beautiful to look at as it is gruesome to watch. Watch The Painted Bird because you have to look into the abyss. If you must avoid it, you already know. If not, come and fetch.