My wife asked me, soon after watching The Painted Bird, if I had enjoyed the movie. A difficult question. A film like this is not really about enjoyment, although the feeling one gets after watching it is quite rewarding. It’s yet another film that looks at most rating systems with disdain.
When you get to the finish of this review and read the stars, it might be worth considering what you get out of watching movies. I do not write this as an insult to a viewer’s tastes. I mean it as I must give the film a star rating; yet make no mistake, this movie is not rated as it is because it’s in the same vein as a franchise favourite. And I feel it’s necessary to highlight this before I go on.
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Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, The Painted Bird’s synopsis is a simple one. A young boy, separated from his parents during the height of the second world war, finds himself seeking refuge through a ravaged Slavic landscape, meeting a multitude of various adults. Most of them only bringing the child anguish. Broken down further, the film is a series of grim vignettes taken from survivors’ accounts and stitched and patched together. Creating a gruelling pilgrimage with a running time of nearly 3 hours.
Starting with the brutal killing of the boy’s pet, the film primes the viewer for what could only be considered as a tour de force of savagery. The boy travels a war-torn landscape confronting suffering at each turn. Deep-seated religious paranoia and psycho-sexuality bleed through every seam. There is little relief as the villagers the boy encounters strip away at his compassion, as their humanity has already been corroded. Characters will say grace for the lord before dinner, but this is a world in which their god has truly left them. Each individual the boy stumbles across views him with scorn or disdain. “He will just bring misfortune” it is suggested early on, yet the so many sinister acts are performed on the child with little reason or regret. The Painted Bird forms a picture of a forgotten realm that is seemingly unbound and detached from the world war which surrounds it. With civility left behind, it is an observation of a world filled with people who try and ward off evil spirits, yet fall prey to their paranoia and base urges.
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The film’s vicious set pieces are not as graphic as expected. There are horror films that are still more explicit. However few films hold the bleak coldness that lies in the oily black and white frames of The Painted Bird. The violence and psychosexual acts stick to you because of the film’s aching despair. There’s truly little solace hidden around any corners. The Painted Bird lost out to Joker (2019) in Cannes for the prestigious Golden Lion prize. It is a loss which perhaps unintentionally suggests that even difficult films with depictions of violence and brutality must somehow be easily consumed. The Painted Bird plumbs greater depths than the prize winner, despite both showing each of their worlds as near hopeless. Both films have their lead character pushing against a destructive and relentless abyss that does little else but stare back at them.
When watching such a grim odyssey, it is easy to question what one gains from something that wrenches the gut. In watching The Painted Bird, I found myself reminded of The Rover (2014), David Michod’s post-apocalyptic film. A film which is similarly as desolate yet reaches towards a simple notion. A small response that draws so much into perspective. The power of both films become truly apparent in the last moments of both. It is also the moment that separates The Painted Bird from Joker, unveiling a sense of humanity that possibly cuts through the aura of nihilism. Highlighting that there is more to this film than the arty, arresting visuals from cinematographer Vladimir Smutny or its surprising near cameos from known western actors.
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This is a difficult film. When screened at festivals there were walkouts. Those were understandable. But The Painted Bird may reward those who stay with it and get hold of the brutality of the film, those who can see it as an impassive mirror to our empathy. Its gorgeous yet stark visuals and difficult subject matter may be distancing but in sticking with The Painted Bird one may find one of the most enriching features of the year.
The Painted Bird will be available digitally and in selected cinemas from 11th September.