Not unlike Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, The Painted Bird will surely be known most for the ugly scenes of torture. Its Venice premier prompted several walkouts; unsurprising given the torrid ways the child protagonist is treated by the various people from whom he seeks refuge. Director Václav Marhoul could easily be accused of going too far, but there many existentialist themes woven into this three-hour nightmare.
According to historian Timothy D. Snyder, the ‘Bloodlands’ is a large area stretching from central Poland to eastern Russian, encompassing parts of Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States. From 1933 to 1945, an estimated 14 million people, who were noncombatants, native to their countries lost their lives, at the hands of both the Hilter and Stalin regimes. The Painted Bird, a spiritual successor to 1985’s Come and See (the latter’s young protagonist Aleksey Kravchenko cast here as a direct tribute), follows, assumedly orphaned child Joska (Petr Kotlár) an aimless navigating the Bloodlands amidst World Wars II. Given this premise, Marhoul choses to use ‘Interslavic’, an amalgam of several Eastern European languages, to effectively capture the vastness of the area.
The equally beautiful and haunting cinematography is intentionally shot in black and white. Picturesque landscape are 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 the horrors he is experiencing. Conversely, when we do see a subtle change on his face, it speaks volumes
Showing the poverty has that stricken the civilians Joska meets, Marhoul coveys how war can turn fellow humans against each. Like Come and See, we witness consistently horrid events from the point of view of a child, and among its many themes which an entire essay could cover, his innocence leads him to trying to help the few who haven’t harmed him, only to worsen the situation.
Shot over the course of three years, the young protagonist visibly ages physically within the film, The Painted Bird proves itself to be more than a simple exhibition of human atrocities. Obviously not for the squeamish, this searing portrait of living within the Bloodlands engraves bright potential futures for both Marhoul and Kotlár. Given the history of the region, Marhoul’s unflinching style turns the film into a haunting and unforgettable experience that, despite the slow pace and minimal dialogue, is impossible to look away.