The Painted Bird movie review (2020)

This adaptation of the novel, directed by Czech actor/filmmaker Václav Marhoul, is impressive on a number of levels … most of them technical. The movie was clearly a massive and difficult undertaking, and on the levels of cinematography (Vladimir Smutny did the honors here) and film language, Marhoul and company almost never put a foot wrong. It’s in trying to locate the—for lack of a better term—heart of the movie where problems emerge. 

Each section of the tale is named for the person under whose care, or perhaps the better word, we’ll see, is scrutiny, the nameless-through-much-of-the-movie protagonist, falls. (The revelation of that name is one of the pictures genuinely moving moments so I won’t give it away.) At the beginning, he’s in a cottage with an old woman named Marta, with whom he shares a relationship of some equanimity, it seems. One night he finds her sitting up in a chair, dead, and before you can say, “Hey kid, don’t drop that oil lamp you’ll burn down the cottage,” the kid drops the oil lamp and burns down the cottage.

The fellow is then bought, as a slave, by Olga, who confirms for the villagers that he’s no good and possessed by Satan. Were it not for the early appearance of a German airplane overhead, one might think this takes place in medieval times; once some male character show up wearing suspenders, you might think, “Okay, 19th century.” These Central European villages are archaic in a lot of ways.

So, Olga buries the kid up to his neck and lets crows peck at him as a way of curing an illness. He escapes from her and winds up at the home of a miller, played by Udo Kier, who’s convinced his wife is having an affair with his stablemaster. One night at dinner, driven mad by the sounds of cats mating, the miller gouges out the eyes of the stablemaster, and of course there’s then a floor-level shot of the cats nipping at the orbs.    

There’s no relief from the suffering, really. The kid meets a kind man who he sees having sex with the local earth mother, who is later raped with a water bottle by the village crones. Found by a local priest, he’s delivered to the local child molester. Taken under the wing of the Red Army, he gets what seem to be some moments of respite for him. There’s a lyrical scene of him resting on a treetop in the early spring with Miska, and just being. But this is a false idyll. The whole reason they’re in the tree in the first place is because Miska is a sniper, and he’s up there picking off villagers—including a child—with his rifle. “An eye for an eye,” Miska tells the kid. Well okay.

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