Based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel, The Painted Bird is a brutal tale of a young nameless boy’s fight to survive on his own during World War II in the wilds of Eastern Europe. He’s beaten and abused wherever he turns, and all he wants to do is find home, though he doesn’t really know where that is. And as he makes his way towards that imagined home, he grows more and more hardened and more like the people he meets, scared and mistrustful of the world at large. Though it takes place during the war, the conflict is distant even if the effects are all around The Boy. While it’s beautifully shot in black and white, it’s also 169 minutes long and essentially a litany of horrors. It’s not a film for the masses.
The Boy’s story begins as he is out in the country living with an Aunt. But when she unexpectedly dies, he is all alone and begins his odyssey to find his parents. As he wanders into a village, he is accused of being the devil then beaten, and just as they are about to kill him, an old woman buys him and he becomes her helper. But that only lasts for a bit; then he falls in a river and is washed downstream to a mill, where he is taken in and works for the miller and his wife. The miller is a sadist both to his wife and to a man who is working there that the miller thinks is looking inappropriately at his wife. So he scoops out his eyes with a spoon and kicks him out. And The Boy witnesses this and leaves. As he wanders to the next person and the next, he witnesses horrors, and horrors are perpetrated on him. A priest even sets him up to live with a pedophile. He’s branded the Devil, a Gypsy, a Jew, and you don’t really know who he is, just that there is no home for this wide-eyed little wanderer. Eventually after hours of watching him being brutalized, he does find his father. But he’s been changed from the sweet child he was and you only hope he can trust and love again.
The Painted Bird took decades to make it to the screen. And the shooting of it took place over a couple of years so you could see the boy age. The film has some big name actors in small scenes. Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper, and Udo Kier each have their moments. But I’m not sure it helps the film much since a lot of their dialogue sounds dubbed. It is all Russian, Czech or German. This is no film for the faint of heart. There is way too much violence and it is graphic. That and the length should keep a lot of people from seeing it, but there is definitely something powerful in it that keeps you watching. No doubt it will appeal mostly to the art house crowd. Just be prepared to squirm.