Film review The Painted Bird (18)

PUBLISHED: 11:02 03 September 2020 | UPDATED: 11:02 03 September 2020

The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird


Václav Marhoul’s harrowing film about a young boy’s struggle to survive in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe is not so much bleak as blunt bringing little resonance to the suffering and violence

The Painted Bird The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird. (18.)

Directed by Václav Marhoul.

Starring Petr Kotlar, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands and Udo Kier. Subtitled. Black and white. In cinemas and streaming.

Running Time: 169 mins.


This is the kind of film that people cross themselves before watching: “For what we are about to receive, gawd help us.”

Rated 18 for “strong violence, sexual violence and disturbing scenes” (BBFC speak for miscellaneous), this tale of a young boy’s struggle to survive in Eastern Europe during the holocaust and World War Two arrives in cinemas brandishing a reputation as a kind of arthouse Human Centipede – mask up and see if you will you make it through its 169 minutes without walking out in disgust.

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But after all the hype, the film doesn’t really put you through the wringer. Although the material is unflinching, its worst excesses are implied rather than made explicit. This adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s not-actually autobiographical novel is an episodic tale following a nameless orphan boy (Kotlar) wandering through an unspecified area of Eastern Europe.

His big problem is that wherever he goes people take an instant dislike to him. If they don’t think he’s a Gypsy they think he’s a Jew; if he’s not a Jew he’s possessed by Satan.

And the people he rubs up the wrong way always have a pitchfork handy, or a whip, or a stick, or a hole to bury him in, or a latrine to push him into. And then the Nazis turn up. The only positive is none of them stays long: a few minutes and he’s off on route to the next depravity.

Sprinkled among the gawping, leering, jeering, gap-toothed peasantry are a few big-name actors. It’s like an inverse of the star-studded Jesus film The Greatest Story Ever Told where half of Hollywood popped up to prove their piety.

Here, performers like Skarsgard and Keitel (looking like a penitent Hughie Green in the role of a good priest) show up to register their opposition to Man’s Inhumanity To Man.

The problem with the film is not its bleakness but its bluntness. Some of the black and white cinematography is striking but Marhoul’s direction is pedestrian.

The framing, shot selection and editing are conventional, they don’t add resonance to the suffering we are being put through.

2/5 stars for blu-ray reviews of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last from Criterion and silent epic The Man Who Laughs from Eureka.

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