Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Petr Kotlár, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper
Written by: Václav Marhoul, based on a novel by Jerzy Kosinski
Directed by: Václav Marhoul
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Interslavic, Czech, Russian, German, etc., with English subtitles
Running Time: 169
Date: 07/17/2020
IMDB

The Painted Bird (2020)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cruel Colors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird is, perhaps, the most fitting for these apocalyptic times, both beautiful and disquieting.

Nothing is quite as purely, gorgeously cinematic as a black-and-white, widescreen movie, just slightly removed from reality, and adding an enigmatic layer of poetry to the carefully composed images. Think Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, or even Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

But then there are also movies that are, simply, extremely difficult to watch. These are movies that delve in onscreen atrocities that go beyond normal shocks, things like Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Gaspar Noe's Irreversible, or Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

The Painted Bird is both.

Based on a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski — whose Being There was adapted into a memorable 1979 Peter Sellers movie — The Painted Bird tells a simple story.

During WWII, a young boy (Petr Kotlár), who may or may not be Jewish, lives with his aunt in a remote farmhouse in Eastern Europe. The moment the movie starts, bullies kill the boy's ferret and set it on fire. Then the aunt drops dead and the shocked boy drops his lantern and burns down the entire farm.

From there, the boy drifts from place to place, being temporarily taken in by various adults, and experiencing many forms of bizarre, hideous cruelty.

The movie is divided into seven chapters, each named for adult characters. Familiar faces such as Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, and Barry Pepper appear, but no English is spoken. In fact, very little is spoken at all. (What is heard is called "Interslavic," comprised of several Eastern European languages.)

Among images of murder and molestation, the movie delivers things like a man's eyeballs ripped out, a man falling into a pit of rats, a woman (pretending?) to have sex with a goat, a severed goat's head tossed through a window, and the title image, a bird with paint on its wings being systematically attacked and destroyed by other birds in an aloft frenzy.

As for the boy, he endures being buried up to his neck and being pecked at by crows, being forced to drink alcohol, being slapped, molested, bullied, enslaved, and made to watch various other horrors.

By the movie's end he has developed an unmistakable hardness. When bullies in an orphanage advance on him, he stares them all down and walks away; he doesn't even have to pull out the gun he has hidden in his pants.

It's an extraordinary performance, based on dark, cold emotions that no child should have to acknowledge. But unfortunately, in this life, they do.

The movie's combination of stark beauty and sheer abhorrence, continuing for 169 long minutes, is a reminder that hurt can cause some hearts to close up, and other hearts to open.

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