Think you’ve seen everything movies have to offer? You haven’t seen Udo Kier gouging a man’s eyeballs out with a soup spoon to the sound of two cats loudly mating. Or a half-buried child having his skull pecked by ravens. Or Julian Sands as a character so monstrous, you’ll never look at A Room with a View the same way again. Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is here to fill those gaps.
This 168-minute black-and-white epic is just about as astringent as arthouse cinema gets, a brutal monochromatic trudge through the horror of World War II that’s based on Jerzy Kosinski’s much-lauded but controversial 1965 novel (it turned out not to be quite as autobiographical as the writer claimed). And like the Nazi and Soviet soldiers who pop up at different points, it takes absolutely no prisoners. At its Venice Film Festival screening there were numerous walkouts, each coinciding with a shocking act of depravity. Some of them were even greeted by laughs of incredulity. (In the interests of balance, it also got a rousing ovation at the end.)
At its dark heart is an unnamed boy (Petr Kotlar, impressive) who has been sent by his Jewish parents to live with his aunt in a homestead deep in the Eastern European countryside. The idea is for him to escape the Nazis. But when the old lady dies, he accidentally sets the place alight and is forced on a weary trudge across a war-torn landscape where he bears mute witness to the brutality that The Painted Bird depicts in unblinking detail.
Marhoul and his cinematographer Vladimir Smutny find an eerie dissonance between these vicious acts of violence and the beauty of a landscape of corn fields, swamps, rivers and pine forests. But, painterly scenery aside, examples of humanity’s ugliness are all their film has to offer – there’s no sign of redemption or even glimpses of empathy in this Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape. The craft is admirable but, unlike Come and See, a film whose treatment of similar material is bleak but meaningful, it ends up feeling like empty overkill.