The Painted Bird
Review by Julia Pascal
Vaclav Marhoul’s film, based on Jerzy Kosincksi’s 1969 novel, is the episodic survival story of a Jewish boy whose parents have been deported by the Nazis. The child is housed with an elderly relative but, when she dies, he must survive alone in a world where all those he meets want to rape him, beat him, enslave him or kill him.
The cinematography and the imagery of this apocalyptic landscape is magnificent. Shot in black and white every image is an artwork. Each is loaded with meaning. The Painted Bird becomes a symbol for the Jew, marked out as different and therefore destined to be murdered by the group. Petr Kotlar, who plays the Boy, is riveting.
Marhoul does not identify the country of this Job-like narrative. The languages used are a mixture of several East European ones mixed with Esperanto to give a universality to the experience of Jews who were scorned, brutalized and murdered. The horror and brutality of the narrative may be difficult to stomach for those who have not researched the period but Kosincksi’s story, which may be partly based on his own childhood, and the terror we feel while watching the barbarity of antisemitism, helps audiences understand what Shoah meant. To use a boy as a protagonist is to create an innocent presence as victim and also as a fighter.
The other important male roles are composed with some nuance. Most notable is that of a priest, brilliantly evoked by Harvey Keitel. The priest offers the Boy to a peasant as a worker but the peasant rapes the child. The priest, knows that the peasant abuses his charge and is conflicted. This complexity in the writing, directing and acting gives the film multiple layers as it explores religion, care, patriarchy, the Church and corruption.
However, the female roles are superficial in comparison. If the male characters suggest a deep inner life, this is not true in the writing and directing of the females. Marhoul offers us risible sexual stereotypes. One woman sits with her legs open to invite all the local young men to have sex with her: the second is envisioned as personification of female licentiousness as she seduces The Boy and a goat. The audience has no idea who these women are as they are presented only as one-dimensional sexual beings. They are long haired, semi-naked or naked and appear to have walked out of a 1960s soft porn movie. I laughed out loud at this Playboy world inserted in to a serious film about the Shoah. I doubt if this was the film-maker’s intention. Sadly, in this otherwise magnificent work, where the acting is sublime, the female characters mainly represent superstition or sex, whereas even a Nazi soldier is given depth as he allows the Jewish child the chance of escape.
The story has an amazing section which shows the misogyny of peasant life as a husband rips out the eyes of his rival in a Shakespearian moment of terror. But, while this movie critiques the misogyny of the peasant, it reveals its own.
Julia Pascal © 2020.
PDF of Press Notes for The Painted Bird ThePaintedBird_EPK_