Original review written for Cinemaaxis.com
Not unlike Pasolini’s ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’, The Painted Bird film will be known by some as ‘that three hour child torture movie’, ‘child torture porn’, or a similar, basic summary along these lines. I hope I am wrong, but despite knowing what they were going into, last year’s Venice premier prompted several walkouts. True, the torrid and almost creative way in which the child protagonist is tormented by almost every person he meets is rather confronting and not for everyone.
The Painted Bird is a spiritual successor to 1985’s Come and See (indeed, the latter’s young protagonist Aleksey Kravchenko is cast here as a direct tribute) as it too follows an aimless, assumedly orphaned child (Petr Kotlár) in an unnamed part of Eastern Europe amidst WWII: ‘The Bloodlands’. Given this premise, director Václav Marhoul chose to use ‘Interslavic’, an amalgam of several Eastern European languages, effectively covering this vast area.
Like Come and See, we witness consistent horrid events from the point of view of a child, and among its many themes which an entire essay could cover, the innocence of the child finds him seeking refuge from people similar to those he has just escaped from. His childish innocence also finds him trying to help the few who haven’t harmed him, only to worsen their situation. Each of these are to forget.
Additionally, being shot over the course of three years, the young protagonist visibly ages within the film, while psychologically his aging is a powerful comment on the development of personality being based largely on childhood experiences. This notion culminates in the film’s unforgettable final sequences. Other extensionalist themes weave their way into the film, especially the metamorphosis of ordinary civilians’ behaviour due to a war they want no part of. These civilians that Joska meets as he seeks shelter are suffering from poverty as well as a war that rages around them. Superstition becomes scarily illogical and is often is the cause of Joska being accused as the reason for their suffering. Why else would an outsider wander into their struggling village? It is a frightening depiction of war turning ordinary civilians into cruel people, many of whom are instantly judgemental of any person unknown to them. Joska is a personification of the feared outsider, the fact that he is a child increases the recurring thematic wallop of what living in The Bloodlands during the war did to people. Whether these people weren’t like this prior to the war remains an unanswered question of great importance.
As if all this weren’t enough, hammering the point home is that one of the very few people who show him pity isn’t a civilian, but a soldier. The act is so foreign to Joska that at first he struggles to understand what is happening.
The cinematography is intentionally shot in black and white using high contrast; picturesque landscape shots are beautiful yet harsh, creating two instances of contrast within single shots. It is quite a feat, and their placement relate to the film with masterful touch.
The beauty is in direct juxtaposition to what is happening on (and off) screen. The same can be said for Kotlár’s almost complete lack of facial expression despite what he is experiencing. Subsequently. the few times we do see a very subtle change on his face, it is amplified, and if such a change is a major, sudden deviance, the emotional result is immediate. It’s gut-wrenching, almost violent in nature. Conversely, in an odd way the harshness of the aforementioned shots play against instances where Joska is able to escape a captor, which are arguably instances of beauty within a film void of anything resembling a true instance of it. The same can be said for the few who do not exploit him.
Make no mistake, this is more than a film. Confronting feels like a crude understatement as this is a deeply layered three hour nightmare of the type that refuses to leave you in peace. Important to understanding the film’s understated thematic elements is a basic understanding of what historian Timothy Synder referred to as The ‘Bloodlands’: a large area stretching from central Poland to eastern Russian, encompassing parts of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States. From 1933 to 1945, according to Snyder approximately 14 million people native to their countries lost their lives. Most were without a uniform and bore no emblem or allegiance to one side. While many of these deaths were at the hands Stalin and Hitler’s forces, more importantly, surviving non-combatants were also far from innocent. This last fact was obviously the main influences for the civilians’ behaviour and their treatment of Joska.
For a film of such minimalism, its capacity for heartbreak is undeniably powerful, which brings back to mind the masterful use of juxtaposition within a long, slow film. It is no surprise then that comparisons to Tarkovsky have been made, and not simply due to the similarities to Ivan’s Childhood.
He had a rare ability to subtly create unique, atmospheric films where the overused word ‘epic’ genuinely applied. A similar feeling is evident throughout The Painted Bird: its inexplicable atmosphere is heightened by sparse dialogue, a slow pace and no soundtrack to speak of. Endless iconic scenes of Tarkovsky films spring to mind when considering these qualities.
Obviously not for the squeamish, this searing portrait of living within the Bloodlands engraves a bright potential future for both Marhoul and the non-professional actor Petr Kotlár. Many will lambast the film, but given the background of the area it is based in, the blood it has seen, an awareness of this turns the film into a haunting, unforgettable experience of a childhood filled with terror and the consequences of this. Like most of Tarkovsky’s work, pondering on its psychological musings is difficult to avoid. However, despite the slow pace and horrific scenes, the ultimate difficulty is to look away.
An easy full six pack, and after sitting through this nightmare rendered terrifyingly real, you will definitely savour each drop.
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