When The Painted Bird premiered at the Venice Film Festival exactly a year ago, there were mass walk-outs. Not because the film is bad – quite the opposite, it’s stunning in places – but the content requires a cast-iron stomach from viewers. Based on the controversial 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski, this black-and-white tale of a young boy travelling across war-torn Europe has the feeling of an old-school arthouse movie from the 1960s. Made by Czech actor/filmmaker Václav Marhoul, it’s uncompromising and tough to take, but it’s most certainly worth your time.
Petr Kotlár plays the unnamed Jewish boy living in Eastern Europe during World War II, though it might as well be centuries past. He’s living with a relative, but when she dies, he must set off home to his parents, alone. So begins a harrowing journey across the countryside, one of brutality that will leave you shuddering. Along the way, in this picaresque tale, he’ll meet various folk – played by recognisable faces such as Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel and Julian Sands. These ‘names’ may have helped fund the film but their roles are fleeting; it’s Kotlár that you watch.
Early on, he winds up with a miller (played by Udo Kier, a talismanic actor who feels perfect for this) that is convinced that his wife is having an affair with the stable-master. Kier’s character, in a fit of rage, attacks his rival, gouging out his eyes with a spoon (which then get dropped on the floor and fed to the cats). It’s a gruesome moment, typical of the violence that the boy either witnesses or is sometimes subjected to.
As off-putting as this sounds, The Painted Bird is not gratuitous for the sake of it, with the director clearly reflecting on the turmoil that Europe and indeed the world was in during this period of conflict. The monochrome cinematography, courtesy of Vladimir Smutny, is a thing of beauty, and when you come out of the other side of this film, you’ll feel like you’ve accompanied its young protagonist every step of the way. Marhoul’s movie is one that’s not easily forgotten. The Painted Bird is available on 11 September. For more details, click here.