Film Review – The Painted Bird (2019)

A controversial 2019 Czech film with international cast that infamously made half of the audience in Venice leave the theatre, will be finally released in the UK on 11 September 2020. Few lucky individuals might have already seen it at Glasgow Film Festival in March. However, only now it will be available for the mainstream audience. Is it really as gruesome as some previous reviews suggested?

The Painted Bird is a war thriller based on the once scandalous bestseller from Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosiński and adapted for the big screen by the Czech director Václav Marhoul (Tobruk). The acknowledged filmmaker was preparing this piece for several years and among the multi-national cast we can find even some well-known Hollywood stars, including Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands or Barry Pepper. Nearly three-hours long, black and white movie earned itself a reputation of a shocking spectacle with many explicit scenes of horrifying violence against women, children and animals. Many spectators in various countries were even unable to watch it until final credits and walked out the cinema.

Just in case you have never come across the Kosiński’s notorious book, The Painted Bird is about a young Jewish boy who is seeking refugee during the Second World War in the Eastern European countryside (in the novel, nor in the film is never explicitly said in which country he is, the surroundings nevertheless resemble Ukraine or eastern Poland the most). However, instead of security he encounters here only cruelty, hatred and prejudice of the locals. An innocent child is wandering from one traumatic experience to another one. He is being chased and tortured. He also witnesses other people being killed, raped or mutilated. When the boy’s painful journey eventually brings him back to his parents, he is unable to get on with normal life…

Yes, the Painted Bird is a naturalistic war story with some very revolting moments that could be for some sensitive members of the audience too brutal. It is nevertheless not much worse than majority of movies that are dealing with Holocaust or similar topic. Lot of violent content is happening off-screen and filmmakers even skipped or moderated the worst parts of the book. Otherwise they accurately follow the Kosiński’s narrative (so the fans of the novel should be pleased). What actually sparks controversy is the fact that story does not portray the Nazi soldiers as the prime evil and everyone else as good guys, which is typical for most of the films from the Second World War. The Painted Bird goes different way. The protagonist meets on his path good people, bad people and complete monsters, regardless of their nationality, gender or political ideology. Kosiński’s (and Marhoul’s) message is that in the times of war and crisis even common folks do horrible things to each other and anyone can become a villain.

The atmosphere of the Eastern European villages is perfectly depressing. You can feel the hero’s pain and misery. Imaginative camera takes, not many dialogues and superb actors (especially the only 12-year old Petr Kotlár in the title role). That all makes Václav Marhoul’s flick an exceptional cultural event of the year. Although it definitely contains some disgusting sequences of graphic violence on the verge of splatter film (for example, the eyes-poking scene), I found more disheartening the parts that remain unsaid (the horror shown on the face of a child – for instance). Under the rough surface it is also a skilfully designed depiction of war and human cruelty that will resonate inside you for a very long time. Given the fact that such ambitious films are quite rare in the Czech cinematography, I have to give the author the full credit.


Drama, War | Czech Republic, 2019 | 18 | Cinema | 11th September 2020 (UK) | Subtitles | Eureka Entertainment | Dir.Václav Marhoul | Petr Kotlár, Nina Sunevic, Udo Kier, Barry Pepper, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård