Vaclav Marhoul‘s The Painted Bird (IFC Films, sometime in early 2020) probably won’t win the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar, but, as the official Czech Republic submission, it totally deserves to be nominated. Because within its own ravishing and diseased realm, it’s a great film. It just happens to be tough to sit through.
I saw it last night and holy moley holy fucktard. It’s about a little Jewish kid (Petr Kotlár) trying to survive all on his own in eastern Europe during World War II, and man, does he suffer the drawn-out pains of hell. So did I in a manner of speaking. But not altogether.
I’m calling The Painted Bird a “beautiful” highbrow art film for elite critics and cineastes who have the fence-straddling ability to enjoy magnificent b&w cinematography (all hail dp Vladimir Smutny) and austere visual compositions while savoring the utmost in human cruelty and heartless perversion.
The vile, animal-like behavior is unrelenting; ditto the highly sophisticated monochrome arthouse chops. Marhoul is quite gifted, quite determined and uncompromised, and quite the bold cinematic artist. He is also, as Kosinski was, one sick fuck.
I mean that in a good way as Marhoul is a Bergman-like in an unrelenting clinical way; he never panders or tries to soften things up for the mom-and-pop schmuckos — he’s totally playing to Guy Lodge and his ilk. This is a movie about some awful, horrific, beastly people (Harvey Keitel‘s priest and the kid’s father excepted), and what agony it can be to suffer under them on a prolonged basis.
I read Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” when I was 22 or 23, and I somehow absorbed all the horrific sadism and cruelty and lonely agony without incident because of the dry, matter-of-fact Kosinski prose. It’s quite another thing to hang with that feral, dark-eyed little kid who doesn’t talk for the entire film.
What is the perverse obsession with people and animals being hung upside down by ropes? What was so terrible about servicing that hot-to-trot farmer’s daughter (Jitka Cadek Cvancarova)?
The instant you see white-haired, beard-stubbled Udo Kier, you go “oh God, here comes another cold, maniacal, salivating monster performance.” Harvey Keitel is totally subservient to the mise en scene — just playing an old, white-haired priest who coughs a lot and then dies. Julian Sands plays a total salivating beast. Barry Pepper (who was young 20 years ago but no longer) is interesting as a Russian soldier with no love for Communism or Josef Stalin.
Exquisitely made, and utterly hellish to the core in terms of its depiction of the human condition. I happen to be on friendly terms with one of the producers, Tatiana Detlofson, who used to be married to Variety‘s Steven Gaydos. Does it deserve to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film? Yes — it’s too well made not to be so honored. Every frame screams “soul-cancer arthouse perversion“.
If you despise human nature and are filled with loathing for people in general, this is a movie for you. But it’s also an exquisitely well-made film in terms of the aesthetic precision and visual balance and generally magnificent cinematography. Unsparing, ice-cold, 98% heartless. Make that 99%.