Ten minutes into this film, I was convinced I would never make it to the end. It was brutal, unremittingly grim, and utterly cringeworthy. But somewhere about 20 minutes later, I became transfixed with it and the young boy at its center.
Based on the 1965 Jerzy Kosinski novel of the same name, the film follows a young Jewish boy – separated from his persecuted parents – as he encounters the best and worst of humanity, while wandering across Eastern Europe during World War II. At 169 minutes, it’s one of the longest films I’ve ever seen and one with the least dialogue – 9 minutes in total. It’s also in black and white.
But it was Petr Kotlar, as the boy with the dead eyes, that held my attention. Smart, savvy, and able to withstand senseless violence and inhumane torture, the film made me want to cheer for him and see his story to the end. What also made this film unique was its structure; it was divided into “acts.” Each one was short and impacting, with different lessons and riveting characters. And each milked the beauty and the horror of the landscape and the times, all the while moving the story forward.
The film features an ensemble cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, and Barry Pepper. When I first saw that Harvey Keitel was in the film, I must admit that I was expecting his usual thuggish countenance and his unmistakable New “Yawk” accent. But to my surprise, he played an empathetic priest and spoke “Interslavic,” a language invented for the film. It was a pivotal role, as was Julian Sand’s as a pedophile and sadist. The scenes in which Skarsgard and Pepper appeared also added to the layers of drama.
The Painted Bird, the book and the film’s title, refers to a scene in which a peasant shows the boy what happens when a captured bird has it feathers painted and is then released back into the flock. Because it’s different, it is attacked and killed … a critical lesson for an outsider.
Ten years in the making, the film has already accumulated a slew of nominations at the Venice Film Festival, including a Best Director Nom for Vaclav Marhoul, a Best Screenplay nod, as well as a Golden Lion and Silver Lion. Unfortunately, while it made the short list for the Oscar’s Best International Feature Film, it was not included among the final five. Luckily, it will hit theaters in the United States in April.
Make no mistake, this is not an easy film to watch. And if you abhor seeing violence on the screen, it may not be for you at all. But this is an important story to tell and retell. It is humanity at its worst and its best. What could be more appropriate in this day and age?