‘The Painted Bird’ Caused Walkouts With Its Pedophilia, Bestiality and Nazis. It’s an Extraordinary Film.

‘The Painted Bird’ Caused Walkouts With Its Pedophilia, Bestiality and Nazis. It’s an Extraordinary Film.

The Painted Bird is a masterful epic about a young unnamed Jewish Boy (Petr Kotlár) navigating a bleak Eastern European landscape during World War II, and when it had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, it was equally praised and decried as brutal and harrowing thanks to its horrifying scenes of murder, pedophilia and bestiality. Ask Czech writer/director Václav Marhoul about that reaction, however, and he confesses that he views his third feature—a nearly three-hour, black-and-white adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel of the same name, boasting supporting turns from Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Julian Sands and Barry Pepper—in a far different light.

“It’s about hope,” the 60-year-old Marhoul states via Skype a week before the film’s July 17 VOD debut. That optimistic perspective, he believes, is why following years of struggle, he was able to secure the rights to Kosiński’s acclaimed book. Pitching his take as about “the three most important things in life: love, good and hope,” Marhoul suspects that, “maybe they were shocked because they expected another reason why I’d want to make this movie. I was trying to explain that it was based on the opposite. I feel hope and good and love is so important in life, mostly when we are missing those three important things. Maybe that was the reason why they said okay, Václav, we’ll give it to you.”

If Marhoul’s upbeat outlook on his disturbing tale is a bit surprising, so too is the fact that, despite its heavily allegorical nature—rife with images of fire and smoke that recall Nazi concentration camps—the writer/director also doesn’t see The Painted Bird as, fundamentally, a Holocaust or World War II film. “This is not a Holocaust movie. If you tell people this movie is during the second World War, and the main character is a Jewish boy, oh my god, it must be a Holocaust movie! And I said, it’s not; it doesn’t matter,” he elucidates. “If you are different, always you have problems, everywhere around the world. So it’s not about Eastern Europe, it’s not about the Holocaust, it’s not about the United States and the problems you have at the moment with Black Lives Matter. It’s about principles which are so deeply inside of us.”

Central to The Painted Bird’s bedrock focus on outsiderdom and intolerance is the scene that gives it its title. Left in the care of an aunt by his parents, and soon forced to roam a harsh rural milieu where he falls into the care of alternately compassionate and callous strangers, the Boy eventually finds his way into the home of elderly Lekh (Lech Dyblik), who for kicks catches a bird, paints it a bright color, and then releases it back into the flock. Marked as different even though it’s inherently the same as its comrades, the innocent winged creature is promptly slain—a symbolic lesson the Boy himself learns first-hand, time and again, over the course of his nightmarish odyssey.

At heart, The Painted Bird is a universal saga of suffering and survival—as well as a timely one about the resilience needed to overcome traumatic persecution. “What’s going on in this story is unfortunately still going on all the time, right now, while we are talking, this very second,” Marhoul says. “In Afghanistan, in Mali, and in so many countries in Africa. As all screenwriters do, I implemented my own experiences in the screenplay, of course. Because for many years, I worked for Czech UNICEF, and we have programs in Africa, providing nutrition and water supplies for the refugees in Rwanda. It’s so important to see how those people are living, and what they’re facing. How really poor they are, and how the children are dying because they simply don’t have nutrition. It’s crazy. So maybe I was more sensitive to this story.”

Assuming the point of view of its young protagonist as he’s thrust along his journey by the cruel hand of fate, The Painted Bird is as austerely beautiful as films come, awash in desolate panoramas of minute figures set against imposing grey skies, and unforgettable close-ups of visages oozing depravity and radiating kindness. There’s a stark immediacy to its many stunning images, and for Marhoul, the reason to shoot in black and white was less about stylistic showmanship than about an underlying sense of authenticity.

“My ambition was to make a truthful movie. This is one of my highest ambitions—that people are really going to be touched. That’s why I chose black and white. Not because I would like to be more artistic—no. So many people think that if you’re producing or making a black-and-white movie like Roma, or Ida, that it’s more artistic. But not for me. I only chose black and white because my ambition was to make a truthful movie. I was thinking of the same problem that maybe Steven Spielberg had when he made Schindler’s List. Just try to imagine if Schindler’s List was in color. I suppose it will be not a disaster, but it will not be so strong. It was the same for me.”

Seeking truth additionally meant shooting The Painted Bird in the Interslavic language rather than in English (no matter what his producers wanted) and, except for its final scene, refusing to use any musical score. That latter decision was born from a desire to let the audience confront their own complicated feelings about the action at hand, free from authorial prodding. “The music is so dangerous,” Marhoul admits. “Directors use music because they’d like to point to something, and they’re pushing the audience to a very specific emotion. They are saying, you must feel this! You have sentimental music, and the director is saying, you must be sentimental at this moment! Or the music is dramatic, because the scene is dramatic! It was everything against the truthful. We can never make something truly true, because we are filmmakers and we are making fiction movies. But we can have a mission to be truthful.”

Despite The Painted Bird’s reputation as a cavalcade of horrors, Marhoul is quick to note that there’s relatively little actual gruesomeness depicted on-screen. Whether it’s a woman being appallingly violated with a glass bottle, a young girl pleasuring herself with a farm animal, or a man tumbling into a pit of voracious rats, the film is a case study in suggestion (aided by sterling sound design) proving far more powerful than explicit. Thus, the writer/director was taken aback when Venice Film Festival attendees labelled it as unspeakably graphic, while letting Golden Lion-winning Joker off the hook for its carnage—at least, that is, until he considered the reason his work was treated differently than Todd Phillips’ inflammatory hit.

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