Premiering in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosińsk’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird is a gruelling odyssey through the bloody fields of Europe in the middle of the 20th century.
Sometimes there are films that you feel people must-see – and mustn’t see at exactly the same time. Watching The Painted Bird in the Darsena, there was a soundtrack of seats slamming up like gunshots as people decided they had had enough. And it was totally understandable. A film about suffering can feel gratuitous. We long for relief. We long for humour. We long for humanity. Sometimes, it just doesn’t come.
A young boy (Petr Kotlar) is being chased through a forest. He is caught by the older boys, beaten and his pet weasel is burned alive, writhing in agony as it dies. And so it goes. For the next three hours, we proceed through a passion play of suffering and cruelty. The boy is supposed to be protected by his aunt, hidden away to avoid the worst of the war, but when his aunt dies the villagers identify him as a Jew only a little relieved when the local hag insists he’s a vampire and buys him.
Through nine chapters the boy will be looked after, beaten, exploited, repeatedly raped and abused by a series of guardians. Some of them are horrific. like Udo Kier’s jealous miller, who gouges out a man’s eyes with a spoon, or Julian Sands’ horribly convincing paedophile. Others offer some kind of relief like Harvey Kietel’s priest. But even an attempt to care for the boy can be mixed do so from mixed motives, like a young woman who saves him from the winter, but also has her own sexual appetites that are in modern parlance ‘inappropriate’.
As well as suffering the torments of Job and covered (quite literally) in the shit of history, the boy is also a Tin Drum-style witness to the horrors being perpetrated all around him. A woman (Jitka Čvančarová) with a large sexual appetite is punished by the mothers of the village in a way that sparked the largest number of walkouts. The villagers are sometimes victims but are also frequently a stone’s throw away from a pogrom. The Nazis, the Cossacks and the Soviets all make devastating appearances, but the locals are no better. In fact, the first act of kindness visited on the boy is from a German soldier (Stellan Skarsgaard) who has been ordered to execute him. Likewise, a Soviet sniper (Barry Pepper) – in a scene reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood – will befriend the boy and tutor him in revenge.
The poetry of suffering is both abhorrent and beautiful, disgusting and fascinating, excessive and vitally necessary. Like Ted Hughes’ poem Crow’s Account of the Battle, Vladimír Smutný’s camera gazes with a bland indifference and it is this which is perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of the film. We have to supply the empathy; we have to supply the horror. Nothing is given to us. It is also a corrective to the view that the Holocaust only happened in the confines of Auschwitz and similar death camps.
The majority of the victims of the Holocaust were murdered before Auschwitz ever became operational. It took place in the woods and villages, in the fields and by the rivers. It grew from the hatred in people’s hearts, a hatred that no longer feels like it resides safely in history. Is The Painted Bird exaggerated? Does it go too far? Does it break the limits of taste? “Yes” on all counts. Walking out is an understandable and valid reaction but watching, getting angry, suffering and approaching understanding is also important too.
The 76th Venice Film Festival takes place from 28 August-7 September.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty