LFF 2019: The Painted Bird – Review

Release date – 27th March 2020, Cert – 18, Run-time – 2 hours 49 minutes, Director – Václav Marhoul

A young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) must fend for himself in the hostile landscape of World War 2 Eastern Europe.

Writer-director Václav Marhoul has claimed about his latest feature – his first for 11 years – that his decision to make it in the Interslavic language (the first feature film ever to do so) was made so that no Slavic nation would nationally identify with the story. Which seems like a good tactic as it turns out that almost every character in The Painted Bird (based on the novel of the same name) is a terrible, terrible person. Almost every single figure that Petr Kotlar’s young character, who for almost the entire film remains nameless; simply labelled as “A Boy”, comes across feels the need to beat and abuse him, and not just the Nazi soldiers who attack any Jewish person they come across.

Kotlar’s character, who’s almost always on-screen, finds himself walking the harsh landscapes of a cold, desolate Eastern Europe during the heights of World War 2 after his aunt dies, his parents having sent him away to avoid antisemitic attacks. For the remaining two hours and forty minutes the central figure finds himself coming across a range of different people, taking residence with each of them and being abused and effectively tortured by each sadistic mind he comes across. You’d think that there’s only so much child abuse, torture, attacks, murder, sexual abuse and much more that you could put in an almost three hour film, however at times it seems that Marhoul thinks otherwise. Yet, somehow he’s managed to bring some fairly big names such as Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård on board.

Amongst all the drab and lengthy sequences that the film has to offer, the dehumanising nature of which is enhanced by the black and white nature of the film – despite almost always seeming as if it’s in colour – and the cold, isolated feel to every scene and landscape that the main character comes across. There are admittedly some rather powerful scenes – seeing a large group of Jewish people trying to run for their lives from a train likely bound for a camp as various Nazi soldiers mercilessly shoot at them is deeply effective at creating a helpless sense of emotion. One that contrasts well with the, at times, rather boring nature of a number of other scenes and ideas that the film has to present. Much of it told through a relatively episodic nature, as the boy goes from place to place, person to person and generally seems to start a new chapter and restart multiple times – potentially something carried over from the novel of the same name, which the film is adapted from?

It’s easy to figure out part way through the first act that The Painted Bird is a very arthouse film for a very specific, rather niche audience. Who that very specific, rather niche audience is I’m not quite sure. But then again the overall lengthy nature doesn’t help, the feeling that the film could do with some editing, especially during the longer scenes and extended sequences, It all makes for the film being a mixed-bag. Leading the final product to be something that can be appreciated and simply just watched rather than properly liked, it certainly can’t be enjoyed due to the subject matter and overall tone of the piece. I’m certainly not the target audience, whatever that audience might be, and this, if there is any type of film that isn’t my type of film, probably isn’t my type of film, so can I really be a person to give an opinion on it, probably not? But, while it has some good points and there are a number of merits throughout, The Painted Bird is a very, very long film, the length not quite helped by the highly bleak and depressing tone and feel of the piece.

The Painted Bird is a long, long film and often one that, while holding some powerful and effective moments; which are sparingly used for effect, is too bleak and depressing to properly engage with and feel a part of the world. The style can be appreciated more like ‘liked’. However, as I say, if there’s any, this certainly isn’t my type of film.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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