The Painted Bird (2019) – Film Review
Director: Vácalav Marhoul
Cast: Petr Kotlár, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård
by Sarah Morgan
The horror of war, the determination to survive and the cruel nature of the human race all feature in writer-director Václav Marhoul’s labour of love. It took the Czech film-maker 11 years to get the story on screen, but it was worth his hard work and endeavour.
He knew after reading Jerzy Kosinski’s novel that it would make a wonderful if traumatic movie. In fact, the surprise is that nobody had taken the plunge before him. Perhaps the controversy surrounding the authorship of several of the author’s works put people off; but whoever was truly responsible for the tale isn’t particularly important to the screen version – the story speaks for itself.
“A gruelling trip”
At its centre is Joska, a young boy sent to live with his aunt on a remote smallholding in an unspecified Eastern European nation at the start of the Second World War. His parents believe he will be safer there, away from the fighting, but nothing could be further from the truth.
His aunt dies, the house burns down, and so, Joska sets out to find his way home. But this is no uplifting Hollywood-style journey of discovery. Instead, misery and torment follow him throughout.
The people he meets have largely been brutalised by circumstance; they are suspicious of strangers, in particular, it seems, wandering Jewish boys. Several are also sexual deviants, thugs or bullies. But somehow Joska survives, although by the end of his ordeal, he barely knows who he is.
As you can tell from that description, it’s a gruelling trip through a harrowing moment in history. If you’re already feeling low, give it a wide birth; but if you’re a devotee of beautifully composed scenes, strong performances and compelling stories, then this is for you.
Marhoul shot the film in 35mm black and white, which is somehow both stunningly beautiful and despairingly bleak. He doesn’t overwhelm viewers with heaps of dialogue or a bombastic soundtrack either, preferring naturalistic sound that adds to the tale rather than telling viewers how to feel.
Petr Kotlár, the young actor entrusted with playing Joska, is a revelation – incredibly, this was his first acting role.
The likes of Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands and Barry Pepper all pop up too. Their names were probably vital to securing finance, but it would perhaps have been better if every part had been played by an unknown – it would have helped carry the illusion that we are watching a documentary rather than a drama.
• Limited Edition O-Card slipcase (1000 copies only)
• 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
• Optional English subtitles
• 11 Colours of the Bird: The Making of ‘The Painted Bird’ [125 mins] – a behind-the-scenes look at the incredible 11-year process it took director Václav Marhoul to create the film version of Jerzy Kosiński’s controversial novel
• PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring an essay on the film by Jason Wood (1000 copies only)
The Painted Bird is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, £14.99