Cinema Review: The Painted Bird | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, August 8th, 2020  

The Painted Bird

Studio: IFC Films
Directed by Vàclav Marhoul

Jul 16, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is an adaptation of an infamous and controversial book of the same name by a Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosiński, itself a powerful work of fiction based on the harrowing accounts of Holocaust survivors and of Kosiński’s own experiences during WWII. Its authorship however, has come to be disputed, with some passages seemingly lifted from lesser-known Polish-language works coupled with Kosiński’s complicated legacy as a somewhat larger than life character prone to exaggeration. But it is generally acknowledged that the writer suffered enormously from his own, and others’ experiences during one of humanity’s cruellest periods. The conversations and the compiling of survivor accounts would take its toll on even the most hardened individual.

The question of authorship is important though, when we consider what we see in Marhoul’s nearly-three-hour adaptation. A nameless boy undergoes unimaginable suffering as he is buffeted across Eastern and Central Europe during the Second World War. Each situation he ends up in seems only to be worse than that which came before, with the abuses taking different forms – from beatings to rape and torture – a twisted parade of our most despicable traits during one of history’s darkest periods. But with some critics labelling the film depraved, Marhoul’s defence has been simply that it is “truthful”. A heart-breaking response.

To begin with there are only the flickers of warfare present in the background. The violence we see at the beginning sits awkwardly between a rural society that is backward, repressed and deeply superstitious, and a hostile atmosphere both capitalised on and cultivated by Nazi forces sweeping across Europe.

The boy’s experiences are relentlessly bleak. But through it we are forced to confront painful truths that alter the simple and complacent narratives Western nations have built around WWII. In The Painted Bird, anti-Semitism is deep-rooted and inextricably linked with superstitious beliefs and “Christian apprehension” of Jewish “sorcery” that has its origins in the European, medieval Christianity.*

Early on we see the boy accused of being a vampire and of having the black eyes of a demon. He is at one point buried up to his neck in a ritual reminiscent of barbaric stoning practises - common punishments for those Jewish people whose innocent acts were, in their strangeness, deemed to be magical and mystical. ie; To be feared.

When a professional bird-catcher shows the boy what happens if he paints and then releases a captured starling back into the wild, we see the deep-seated fear of the outsider manifest itself in brutal fashion. As the bird re-joins its flock, it is attacked and pecked to death, falling to the ground moments after being freed. It is a painful moment of realisation for the child and a horrible example of how easy it can be to exploit people’s natural fears.

But there is a sense of detachment to Marhoul’s film that is difficult to ignore. The cool black and white cinematography lends it an air of remoteness that feels troubling. The violence is upsetting, certainly to begin with, but it becomes harder and harder to describe it as affecting. When Cossacks appear later on, ransacking an entire village, it almost feels banal.

It is disappointing that Marhoul’s evident passion for this film, and his acute recognition of the atrocities still taking place around the world, aren’t transported to screen in a more emotionally resonating way. What should feel like a powerful exploration of mankind’s propensity for evil ends up feeling arduous. The violence less and less impactful. The end is certainly touching, but only if you can make it that far. 

(* Jewish Magic & Superstition by Joshua Trachtenberg, 1939)

Author rating: 5/10

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