‘The Painted Bird’ Review: Black And White Tale Is Unrelenting To Its Core

World War II tale of survival stars Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, and Barry Pepper.

Petr Kotlár as “A Boy” in Václav Marhoul’s THE PAINTED BIRD. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, The Painted Bird is nearly three hours of brutal and unforgiving events experienced by a young boy (Peter Kotlár) who is struggling his best to survive in the closing days of World War II. Shot on 35mm, this black and white epic is a visual feast for the eyes, but some viewers will be turned off by its unrelenting violence and degradation.

We are introduced to the young boy (Petr Kotlár) running away with his pet ferret, only to be attacked by a couple of bullies. He helplessly watches them set fire to his ferret, and is punished by his elderly aunt for wandering off from their farmhouse. The boy has been sent to the farm since his parents believe he will be safer in this remote environment.

This living situation is temporary (his aunt passes), and a series of tragedies will befall the boy that would even try the patience of Job. With no real adult or home to cling onto, he wanders from adult to adult, performing menial duties while trying to find a bit of food and shelter.

Harvey Keitel as “Priest” in Václav Marhoul’s THE PAINTED BIRD. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release. 

The grown ups in The Painted Bird, in the face of World War II and the holocaust, have no time for niceties, and this survival of the fittest mentality leads our protagonist down abusive and violent pathways. There are moments of kindness bestowed upon the child, thanks to a German soldier (Stellan Skarsgard), a compassionate priest (Harvey Keitel) and lastly a Russan sniper (Barry Pepper, reminding us of his role in Saving Private Ryan).

Running at 169 minutes, this black and white shot feature would be perfect for the big screen, as director/writer Václav Marhoul and cinematographer Vladimír Smutny are painting on a big canvas. It may be the intimate story of a kid looking for a little bit of hope, but the filmmakers infuse an expansive approach to their narrative.

Barry Pepper as “Mitka” in Václav Marhoul’s THE PAINTED BIRD. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

The feature is broken down into numerous chapters, with each installment spotlighting a new stranger the boy meets along the way. Scenes of rape, bestiality, pedophilia and unflinching violence are part of the story’s aesthetic, so this feature will understandably have its detractors.

During one sequence, the film’s moniker is explained, as we witness a bird who is painted white fly into a flock that is circling above the sky. This meet and greet does not go well for the bird, and even though the boy is torn apart as he holds its mangled corpse, he may have known the bird’s flight even before it took flight.

Julian Sands as “Garbos” in Václav Marhoul’s THE PAINTED BIRD. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

Whether it’s the Russians or Germans, most of these people treat him as an underling or (worse yet) a play thing, and one wonders if, by the end of this horrific journey, he will ever find peace. Like the “painted bird,” he can never become part of any flock.

Although it bleak beyond belief, it’s hard not to be immediately engrossed in The Painted Bird’s methodical and hypnotic sense of storytelling. Shot over a period of 100 days that was spread out to almost two years, the feature also shows the subtle growth of Kotlár, and watching his character mature before our very eyes is one of the film’s strongest facets.

There are images from The Painted Bird that may be embedded in your memory for years to come, and while most of them are painful to conjure up, it proves that Marhol knows how to compose a frame. Even though Kosinski, who commited suicide at age 57, lied about the book’s authenticity (it was not based on his life as previously claimed), The Painted Bird exists as a first rate cinematic achievement that should leave you shaken when the final credits commence.

The Painted Bird comes out on Digital, and Cable VOD on July 17.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.