Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird” makes “The Revenant” look like a stroll in the park. Through nine grueling chapters, audiences endure one of the most heart-wrenching World War II stories ever told. Adapted from Jerzy Kosinski’s bleak novel of the same name, this black-and-white retelling of a Jewish war orphan’s (Petr Kotlár) abuse-ridden journey across Eastern Europe is a rallying cry to recognize the ongoing evils of communal prejudice. The depressing trek towards sanctuary expounds the impetus of war. It has never been about liberating the innocent – it’s about whose ideology will triumph to indoctrinate the conquered. As experienced by young Joska, human cruelty is ubiquitous, masked by dogmatic principles that subjugate and violate in unconscionable ways, ultimately spawning recycled monstrosity.
Interslavic is the predominant language of “The Painted Bird,” a first in cinema that Marhoul employs to link the expansive region without specifying nations. Caught amid varying dialects, Joska is in the care of an ailing aunt while his parents are away at an undisclosed yet presumably dangerous location. Joska’s innate kindness is the first attribute we come to know him. The opening sequence finds him fleeing a group of young boys intent on incinerating a young ferret he’s holding. Though he fails his rescue mission, it’s clear the boy is a rare breed of benevolence in a land plagued by heartless rage.
Missing two teeth from the scuffle, Joska returns to his aunt’s farm without the slightest foresight that his troubles are about to worsen. One night later, Joska finds his aunt died of a heart attack inside their barn. The shock of this discovery causes Joska to drop the gas lamp he’s holding and burn down the entire farmstead. Now homeless, Joska roams local villages for prospective work in exchange for foster care, not realizing he’s about to begin a horrific road of domestic depravity and mob viciousness.
“The Painted Bird” is about a boy given more lives than opportunities. Joska’s perseverance pulls him out of unspeakably violent households time and again. However, the weary fight and flight expedition takes a massive toll on his world view. Evil thoughts begin to take sway, making him wonder if emulating the brutal treatment he’s receiving is the only way to survive. The biblical law of “eye for an eye” becomes increasingly seductive, the more hopeless Joska’s sojourn becomes.
Physical and sexual abuse, bestiality, incest, slut-shaming, religious hypocrisy, proselytizing, communism and Nazism imposition, and identity erasure are among the horrors Joska either experiences or bears witness. Humanity is stripped of anything remotely resembling a conscience. The only comfort Joska finds is the beauty of nature, too often tainted by social interference. The title of the film referred to Joska’s metaphoric likeness to birds marred by difference and picked apart when returning to the flock. In this case, Joska is a traveling Jew, hexed from birth in the eyes of hateful locals who propagate intolerance through vilification. The boy’s odyssey mirrors that of his nomadic ancestors, shunned by everyone throughout history, with no hope of refuge or a place to call home truly.
Joska encounters many faces that cinephiles will recognize. Cameos from Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, and the undervalued Barry Pepper (who makes the most of his brief appearance among the elite cast) intensify the narrative’s warning that human familiarity does not represent safety. In “The Painted Bird,” adulthood is the execution of the soul. Joska’s childhood is continuously on the precipice of acceleration, doomed an early demise unless salvation is found. The child’s long, hellish road reaches a stunning ending that stays with viewers long afterward.
Vladamír Smutný’s crisp cinematography captures humankind at its worst with quiet ethnographic observance. With no score to manipulate emotions, Marhoul’s tour de force – snubbed the “Golden Lion” at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and a “Best International Feature Film” Academy Award nomination this year (Czech Republic) – coldly presents all forms of mankind’s evil. Yet through such gratuitous depiction comes the cathartic revelation: light in overwhelming darkness never yields its glimmer.