The Painted Bird [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (8th December 2020).
The Film

UNICEF Award: Václav Marhoul (won) and Golden Lion (Best Film): Václav Marhoul (nominated) - Venice Film Festival, 2019
Czech Lion (Best Film): Václav Marhoul (won), Best Director: Václav Marhoul (won), Best Cinematography: Vladimír Smutný (won), Best Sound: Pavel Rejholec and Ludek Hudec (won), Best Art Direction: Jan Vlasák (), Best Costumes: Helena Rovna and Ivo Strangmüller (won), Best Film Poster (won), Best Actor: Petr Kotlár (nominated), Best Supporting Actress: Jitka Cvancarová (nominated), and Best Screenplay: Václav Marhoul (nominated) - Czech Lions, 2020

A young boy (Petr Kotlár) lives on an isolated farm with his aged aunt Marta (Nina Sunevic). Disliked and abused by the local children (who beat him and kill his pet rabbit), the boy spends most of his days shining shoes and thinking of his absent parents. When his aunt suddenly dies and the farm goes up in flame, the boy takes to the road in hopes of finding his parents. Happening upon a ghost town of a village, he is caught by the locals who call him a gypsy and a witch, holding him responsible for their crop failures and animals dying until healer Olga (Alla Sokolova) "buys" him for labor. Caught alone running errands by the villagers, he is pushed into the river and washes up near a farm where he is taken in by a laborer (Zdenek Pecha) who works for a miller (The Story of O's Udo Kier) and his younger wife (Michaela Dolezalová). The boy is fed and kept warm but he is not blind to the underlying tensions between the three, fleeing in terror when they finally explode in an act of violence. For a time he finds peace as the apprentice for bird merchant Lekh (With Fire and Sword's Lech Dyblik), but the man's involvement but tragedy comes once again through the intolerance of local villagers for outcasts (rather than the figurative "root" of the problem). In the next village, he is offered up to the German soldiers as a Jew by the villagers, narrowly avoids execution by the SS and is taken in by an elderly priest (The Piano's Harvey Keitel) who unwittingly puts him in the hands of a child molester (A Room with a View's Julian Sands), an experience that nevertheless leaves him unprepared for the warm but unhealthy affections of Labina (Julia Valentova), a sixteen-year-old girl who turns her attentions to him (and then to a goat) after her bedridden father dies. When he winds up in a camp of the Red Army, he does not necessarily discover but has the lesson "an eye for an eye" branded into his mind by sniper Mitka (Ripley Under Ground's Barry Pepper), and there may be nothing left of the boy he once was if he survives the war.

The time period of the The Painted Bird – based on the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński (Being There) – is ambiguous for much of the running time, with the unidentified Eastern European setting appearing anywhere from the Middle Ages onward. While press materials have been more forthcoming out of the necessity to promote it to festivals as this year's World War II epic, the "timelessness" of the first two acts appears to denote the practices of scapegoating and offering up the weakest of body and mind for persecution and sacrifice are age-old behaviors. Rather than the boy's innocence and empathy seeming to persist in spite of his abuse – the priest compares the boy to Jesus in his having to endure much suffering with the promise of a reward in Heaven, although that message is undercut not only by the brutality of the boy's suffering but also the likelihood that the one of the film's most well-meaning characters probably counsels many with that message – the progression of violent episodes seems to suggest that the boy would be no different than his abusers if he were not an outcast. After a group of Jews escaping from a moving train are gunned down, the survivors strip the corpses to salvage their clothes and belongings; as horrid as the sight is, the boy ends up doing the same merely to survive, adopts a servile position of shining an SS officer's (The Cakemaker's Tim Kalkhof) boots to avoid being executed, and we later see him beat down an old man in the woods for his coat; and the multiple victimizations of fellow outcast Ludmilla (Jitka Cvancarová) seem to register less with him than the resulting suicide of Lekh. Despite being a passion project for director/script adapter Václav Marhoul, there is a certain unevenness of tone that seems less self-reflexive than confused; for instance, how the audience is expected to react to the boy turning the tables on either of his molesters versus his application of "an eye for an eye" on a street vendor (Filip Kankovský) who accused him of trying to steal from his stall and beat him in front of a crowd of indifferent onlookers, or capping the excessive violence of a Cossack raid on a small village with a soldier shot off his horse overdubbed by a very prominent Wilhelm scream. While the viewer watches wondering what abuse will be next heaped upon the young protagonist, the ending fails to resonate whether one believes the boy will recover some semblance of a normal life – having seemingly changed his mind about his father (Child 44's Petr Vanek) after a night out seeing others children who apparently have it worse – or if he is likely forever scarred and embittered by his experience. Kotlár's central presence was nominated for a Czech Lion Best Actor award but is more expressive than performative – the similarly non-verbal performance of Cvancarová also merited a supporting actress nomination – but it is certainly more engaging than any of the odd bits of "cameo" casting that are either overplayed or barely there from Keitel's priest and Pepper's soldier to the likes of Stellan Skarsgård (Insomnia) as the "Good Nazi" who lets the boy escape, Pavel Kríz (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol) as a zealous townsperson who shows his allegiance to the occupiers by trying to kick a Jewish man to death in the street, and other bit parts essayed by Czech film and television actors. Although it is illustrated on film just as in the novel, the significance of the title may also pass without resonance (although we can be thankful the director forewent any Schindler's List-esque digital color-grading in the monochrome image). In the end, The Painted Bird feels less like a work of substance than a prestige project to court the film festival circuit with a catalogue of outrages against a historical backdrop with a monochrome sheen and dotted with an international cast of bit parts.


Shot on 35mm film – with some Red Monstro 8K digital camerawork for effects shots – The Painted Bird admittedly looks spectacular in Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.40:1 widescreen encode with the inkiest of blacks and a range of grays and whites in the monochrome cinematography and textures of stone, mud, woodland, clothing, and skin that give a tactile sense to the film's most brutal moments and a beauty to those moments when we and the protagonist can sit back and take in the settings. The film has been picked up by IFC in the United States and it has screened at festivals but there has not yet been a home media release announcement as yet.


The sole audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track – I'm surprised the filmmakers did not spring for Dolby Atmos or DTS:X – which is responsive to the environments, front-oriented for the more intimate scenes with the surrounds occasionally goosed by atmospheric effects or very active in the more frenzied sequences (although the most effective of those moments are when angry and anguished human voices create the cacophony). Optional English subtitles are provided.


I was unable to access the disc's stills gallery (which may be a player specific issue) but the disc's major extra is the feature-length 11 Colours: The Making of The Painted Bird (125:31) in which director Marhoul discusses the two year process of just getting the rights to the book from the Chicago publisher and then the three years of scripting and searching for the young lead, with the director initially discovering a child violinist in his family's restaurant and trying to coax a performance out of him as well as enrolling him in some acting classes. A year later, he ran into the boy's younger brother Kotlár (who he thought too young at the time) who was more extroverted and responsive to the acting exercises which included sitting in on the auditions of the other cast members. The documentary functions as a bit of a shooting diary, documenting Kotlár's first day of shooting (also the film's first day of shooting) and moving onto the various locations with a focus as much on the boy's experience of the shoot as the that of the director.


The first 1,000 copies come with a limited edition O-card slipcover and a 26-page collector’s booklet featuring an essay on the film by Jason Wood in which he notes the director's intent ("My goal was to create a series of tableaux that, cumulatively, takes our protagonist on a journey to the very heart of the dark human soul. Each part of the series is a visual clue, a sort of lost fragment of a larger painting, a canvas that draws the protagonist irrevocably toward a final catharsis") with the episodic nature of the script, his reasons for choosing black-and-white, his decision to shoot in Czech with an English-speaking cast, as well as his efforts "to ensure Kotlár’s tranquillity and mental equilibrium on set." Wood also discusses the source novel and the controversies surrounding its authorship and discredited biographical aspect.


In the end, The Painted Bird feels less like a work of substance than a prestige project to court the film festival circuit with a catalogue of outrages against a historical backdrop with a monochrome sheen and dotted with an international cast of bit parts.


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