The meaning of the title “The Painted Bird” is revealed in a particular scene. A boy (Petr Kotlár) watches a bird been painted in white by its owner, and then released into its flock. The painted bird is no longer recognized and eventually killed by other birds.

Please prepare yourself before watching Czech writer/director Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird”, a controversial film that caused audiences to walk out of the theater during its 2019 Venice Film Festival premiere. Featuring countless graphic violence and disturbing sexual content, “The Painted Bird” is adapted from Polish author Jerzy Kosiński’s acclaimed novel, which is controversial on many levels. One is the context that describes a Jewish boy’s survival journey in Central Europe during WWII. The other is aimed at Kosiński himself. When his novel was first published in 1965, Kosiński indicated the story was adapted from his childhood wartime memories, but journalists later discovered that Kosiński and his parents pretended to be a Christian family and lived a relatively comfortable life with a fake name during the war. The massive blast aftermath led to his suicide in 1991.

Did Kosiński’s novel exaggerate in the depiction of WWII? Did human beings actually treat each other inhumanly? We follow this Jewish boy with no name for a near length of 3 hours (perhaps the nameless protagonist is functioned as the representative of all mankind), who wanders around Central Europe during wartime. The film is presented in several different chapters. Each chapter is named after each character he met: his aunt who is not able to take care of him, a healer who trades him as a slave, a grumpy miller (Udo Kier), a birdcatcher who in love with a prostitute, a Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgård ) who leaves him alive, a priest (Harvey Keitel) who shows him kindness, a Russian officers who protects him… The boy has no line throughout the entire film. He is more like a bystander, silently witnessing cruelties happened right in front of him. First-time-actor Kotlár delivers an extraordinary, remarkable performance. Emotions surface on his face, and the pains he suffered shows in his eyes.

Start from the thrilling opening – the boy is punched and kicked by other children, then forced to watch his pet burned to death – violent and brutality never stop torturing the boy. Most adults here never treat him kindly. He also witnesses countless cruel behaviors: a man’s eyes are dug out; a woman is tortured to death by other women using a wine bottle to penetrate into her body; a man hangs himself in front of him, a young widow weirdly satisfies her sexual desire; and the entire village residents are slaughtered brutally. While traumatized by the unknown future, the boy also learns how to live in this world. What frightens me the most is how the boy easily normalizes the violence around him. There is a moment he cut his arm with a knife, blood is flowing, but he is extremely calm as if he has no soul or consciousness.

We don’t know the boy’s name until the end of the film when he writes his name on the dusty bus window. For the first time, he rediscovers and embraces humanity after a series of sufferings. However, at the exactly same moment, you will feel pained at how much humanity had lost and been wiped out. Shot in black and white, cinematographer Vladimir Smutny’s breathtakingly captures the incredible and raw emotions, strengthening the theme visually.

Why a flock of birds attack its species with different appearance? How can humans treat each other in some of the most unbelievable inhuman ways? “The Painted Bird” is trembling and disturbing. It’s hard to swallow and tough to let go. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether Kosiński’s novel was telling the truth or fiction, we all deeply realize that this period of history was once existed in our civilization, and I’m convinced that I don’t want to go through the same experience.

GRADE: A–

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  • Distributor: IFC Films
  • Production: Silver Screen, Ceská Televize, PubRes, RTVS, and Directory Films
  • Director: Václav Marhoul
  • Writer: Václav Marhoul
  • Cast: Petr Kotlár, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Barry Pepper, and Harvey Keitel

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