The World Is a Vampire
The Painted Bird has a lot to say about how terrible people are, but not much else
An intense and prolonged experience about the inhumanity of war, The Painted Bird might take its rightful place as the most prestigious endurance test since 1985’s Come and See. The point of the story, hammered home again and again over the course of two hours and forty-nine minutes, is that war destroys the soul, makes even non-combatants callous and vicious — the subsidiary point, perhaps, being that in war there are no non-combatants. Everyone is drawn into the madness, including our young protagonist (Petr Kotlár), nameless for most of the film. We begin in medias res, with the boy running through woods, carrying a small fuzzy animal (a ferret?). Some young bullies catch up to the boy; they beat him and incinerate the animal. Welcome to The Painted Bird, where even small gestures of mercy and kindness are tainted and ambiguous. Mostly, people are beasts to one another.
The movie is based on the much-debated 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, whose World War II experiences, it turned out, did not inform the book; some even doubted that he himself wrote it. Still, Kosiński — like Come and See ‘s Elem Klimov after him — fashioned a ghastly rat-trap reality that ground innocence under the treads of tanks. The eerie thing about the movie is that so many of its settings are rural and almost primeval it’s jarring when a plane or jeep or even a train shows up. The boy wanders through endless villages and is set upon by peasants, perverts (pedophiles of both genders), and fellow castaways of the war. The closest thing to a laugh in the entire epic is when the boy performs an act of animal cruelty to get even with a teenage girl who has abused him.
But then the whole enterprise is about cruelty in all its forms. At the risk of sounding impatient, I think The Painted Bird might have dealt subtler and sharper damage to our psyche less about 45 minutes; the constant and endless litany of offenses to our young hero becomes numbing and borderline ludicrous, which is a problem inherent in an anecdotal structure allowed to stretch out at epic length. The boy meets someone new, and you sigh and wonder how this person is going to fuck him over, literally or figuratively. Occasionally someone like a kindly if clueless priest (Harvey Keitel) or a Russian sniper (Barry Pepper) happens along and takes the boy under his wing. (The American actors seem to be sounding out their dialogue phonetically in Interslav or Russian or whatever, and then someone else dubs them over. It works; it gets us away from Barry Pepper attempting a Russian accent, anyway.) Aleksei Kravchenko, once the 16-year-old star of Come and See, turns up as a Russian officer and seems to be passing the baton of suffering on to Petr Kotlár, a Czech-Romani newcomer who spent his tenth and eleventh years on the set. Kotlár holds this fierce behemoth of a movie together despite almost no dialogue.
Unlike Elem Klimov, the Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul allows us mitigating artistry and even beauty to offset the human ugliness. (Udo Kier comes in to do his thing, using a spoon.) Vladimír Smutný’s black-and-white photography is sumptuous, even bucolic at times; the restful country landscapes, if anything, are more chilling for the sense they give of turning their backs on carnage and sadism. You can die out there in the open air and nobody will care; you’ll be rolled into a grave or become a toy for crows. The title refers to a bit where a man daubs white paint onto a bird and lets it fly off, whereupon its fellows peck it to death in mid-air. Humans, nature — the portrait of indifference to pain and need is distressingly complete. The Painted Bird is artful, if not quite art — it needs finer threads in its tapestry than just “People suck” — but it’s without a doubt a masterwork that you will most likely give exactly one evening of your life, if that.