Much has been made of the extreme and unrelenting violence that penetrates almost every scene of Václav Marhoul’s 169-minute “The Painted Bird,” a gruesome parade of inhumanity in the grand tradition of “Come and See,” “The Tin Drum,” and “The Wrong Missy.” Following a young boy as he silently bears witness to a series of unspeakable horrors while drifting through the Slavic world at the height of World War II, this steely adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s allegorical horror novel (née memoir) of the same name opens with a warning shot to anyone who hit the wrong button on their way to rent “Palm Springs.”
Our unnamed protagonist is introduced as he clutches a small animal — a dog that could pass for a ferret — and sprints away from the group of children nipping at his heels. The kids catch up to him and set the animal on fire for their own amusement. This may not be the most vicious scene in the movie (if anything, it’s one of the kindest), but it’s a fitting introduction to a film that often feels like a feature-length adaptation of the infamous cat-bludgeoning sequence in Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó.” Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Well, most hope, anyway.
And yet if the savagery of “The Painted Bird” is so pronounced that the film’s reputation has already come to precede it, that may have less to do with the sheer volume of the story’s violence than it does the jarringly specific way that Marhoul bakes it into his otherwise symbolic movie. The Boy is buried up to his neck in a dirt field so that birds can nibble on his eyeballs. A woman is held down by an angry mob and violated with a glass bottle. A pedophile is pulled into a giant pit and eaten alive by a swarming mass of rats. A blonde teenager commits an act of bestiality out of spite. A baby is shot at point blank range. Andy Samberg never even shows up (a Barry Pepper cameo will have to do).
This is an epic that’s short on historical detail and long on suffering; a mosaic of monstrousness that — while oppressively linear — doesn’t feel like it’s moving forward in time so much as trying to escape the corpse-strewn hedge maze of the mid 20th century. The film’s clearest narrative trajectory isn’t the Boy’s meandering trip from one corner of the Slavic world to the other, but rather the gradual process by which his journey thaws from fable into fact.
At the beginning of the story it doesn’t matter who the Boy is, or why his parents might have dumped him with his aunt for safekeeping. By the end, which ekes out just enough hope to throw the rest of the film into the harshest of reliefs, the Boy’s identity is clear, specific, and of the utmost importance. He emerges from a Hieronymous Bosch-like hellscape in order to grace our world with whatever humanity he still has left, and yet the horrors he observes (and even participates in) along the way tend to feel like the stuff of an impossibly grim fairy tale: unreal, even when they pale in comparison to the actual atrocities that occurred during that time period. As a result, “The Painted Bird” spirals between fairy tale and history lesson as if it were trying to fly with a clipped wing. Several passages create a stomach-churning sense of inertia, but only during the very last shot does the whole thing manage to get high enough off the ground to offer a valuable perspective.
Here is one of those movies in which certain scenes are lucid enough to negate any pressing need for the others (no matter how many others there might be). In this case, the most glaring example arrives when a gentle-natured bird breeder teaches our young protagonist about the title of the film he’s been trapped in for the better part of an hour. By this point, the Boy — played by Petr Kotlár, a compellingly empty vessel of a newcomer who Marhoul scouted off the streets of the Czech village where he was writing the screenplay — has already fled his aunt’s house after her sudden death, been branded and sold as a vampire, and watched Udo Kier gouge out the eyes of someone who dared look at his wife.
For all of the horrors he’s witnessed in his journey thus far, however, the Boy still has much to learn about the ignorance of his fellow man, and how they tend to be more comfortable killing with violence than living with fear. The breeder lathers one of his birds in a beautiful coat of white paint and sends it back up to the sky, only to watch the rest of the flock tear it apart from beak to tail. Innocence has a way of inviting the most extreme inhospitality. Vladimír Smutný’s imagistic black-and-white cinematography accommodates the carnage so naturally that it blows through the frame like the wind. It’s such a succinct illustration of what Marhoul is seeking to crystallize that the film’s subsequent expressions of that theme amount to tedious miserablism.
Which isn’t to say there’s nothing to be gained for slogging through the muck and earning whatever hardcore cinema merit badge people are handing out at the end of this movie. For one thing, viewers are treated to a subdued but still wildly unexpected Harvey Keitel performance that re-cements his reputation as one of the most fearless actors we have left. Like all of the supporting characters in this picaresque nightmare, Keitel’s priest isn’t on screen for long, but he leaves all too memorable an impression. The similarly bold Stellan Skarsgård drops by as a merciful Nazi in another chapter, offering a rare break from the film’s dislocating use of the Interslavic language.
Each of these encounters — and several others besides — remain detached and affectless no matter how dismal things get, as Marhoul’s steady remove and general resistance to spectacle (or even a score) provide the numbing effect that movies like this require in order to remain at all watchable. You know it’s going to plan when a major pillaging setpiece barely registers as more than a bump on the Richter scale. Still, the darkness is so complete that even the most fleeting moments of lightness prove blinding, and much of the film’s power is located in how carefully Marhoul punctuates the void with the odd close-up (most of which provide moments of grace, although one towards the end codifies perhaps the most sadistic thing the Boy comes across).
As the Boy grows from victim to perpetrator and back again — Kotlár noticeably aging over the two years this film was shot — “The Painted Bird” reflects on the impressionability of its wayward hero. Emerging from shallow pasts and moving towards uncertain futures, children uniquely exist in the present tense in a way that allows us to see the world anew by how it refracts through their eyes. For better or worse, the world is teaching the Boy how to live in it, and perhaps the scariest thing about this story is how easily its protagonist normalizes the violence around him. At one point he befriends a sniper who gives the kid an adult-sized army jacket: “It will fit you just right,” the older man observes. It’s the rare moment when this movie isn’t defined by the specific atrocities it’s trying to endure, and finds a comfortable space between parable and drama. The rest of the time it’s more like a vulture picking at the carcass of history, and there’s only so much meat on those bones.
IFC Films will release “The Painted Bird” in select theaters, drive-ins, and on Digital/VOD on Friday, July 17.