Anyone depending on the kindness of strangers is going nowhere fast in “The Painted Bird,” a child’s-eye Holocaust drama of such unrelenting brutality as to make even the vaguest gestures of humanity — a held hand, a shared crust of bread — feel in context like miracles of grace. Only the third directorial effort in 17 years from Czech multi-hyphenate Václav Marhoul, this stonily imposing adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s contentious 1965 novel is by some measure his most ambitious and accomplished: a 169-minute panorama of violent societal breakdown, following a nameless boy through a cruel obstacle course of survival and abuse in an unidentified Eastern European country at the frenzied close of the Second World War.
The extreme lashings of suffering and sadism shown here are scarcely ameliorated by the exacting beauty of their presentation. Shooting in ravishing 35mm monochrome, apt enough for illustrating a world drawn into stark black-and-white polarities of good and (mostly, it seems) evil, “The Painted Bird” teases its audience into gazing with wonder upon its silvery, shadow-streaked rural tableaux before repeatedly confronting them with images far harder to face with open eyes: a child nearly pecked to death by scavenging crows, a pilloried woman being stabbed and kicked in the genitals, a man losing his own eyeballs to a jealous rival’s rage. (In this earthly hellscape, perhaps losing your sight is a kind of sick blessing.) The film’s sheer unblinking stamina is as impressive as its pristine formal composure, though it has to be said that at nearly three hours — somewhat surprising, considering the novel’s brevity — its blunt-instrument force doesn’t yield much fresh perspective on oft-dramatized atrocities.
Unspooling in competition at Venice, “The Painted Bird” will require a tailwind of festival acclaim and awards to encourage distributors to invest in its implacable, stomach-testing bleakness, though a star-speckled international ensemble boosts its global arthouse prospects. Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier and Barry Pepper are among the names putting in cameo time, though none wrests the spotlight away from young non-professional lead Petr Kotlár, who holds the camera with grave resolve.
The high international profile of Kosinski’s source novel may be a selling point too, even if its reputation has taken a hit since initial acclaim over half a century ago. First positioned as autobiography before being discredited as such, the book has even had its authorship disputed. (There’s speculation, meanwhile, that Kosinski was in fact inspired by the childhood experiences of his friend and compatriot Roman Polanski.) Unlike with, say, James Frey’s similarly tarnished (and recently, ineffectively filmed) “A Million Little Pieces,” none of these literary sticking points are obstacles to the novel’s plainly gripping narrative working as cinematic fiction: Marhoul has stripped the text to its barest, tersest bones, wisely eschewing any voiceover and trusting in d.p. Vladimír Smutný’s expert camera to steer our point of view.
The only novelistic device here, in fact, is a series of nine chapter headings dividing the film’s episodic, gruelingly linear structure. They are titled after the various adults into whose alleged care our pre-teen protagonist, identified only as the Boy, falls over the course of his arduous cross-country trek. Yet no names or other such niceties are uttered on screen in the course of the narrative: “The Painted Bird” offers a vision of war-ragged society in which all survivors have been reduced to anonymous, animalistic beings, drained of feeling or empathy. Separated from his Jewish parents in the turmoil, the Boy is left under the austere guardianship of an elderly peasant woman (Nina Shunevych); enduring hard daily labor in return for food and shelter, he’s forced to move on when she dies and he, in shock, accidentally burns the house to the ground. Hold onto this vignette: It’s among the film’s more cheerful.
The rest of the film proceeds as a catalog of hardship, doled out by one weathered, dead-inside grotesque after another, all with their own methods of exploiting the Boy’s vulnerability as he trudges across the landscape with no particular place to go. (We lose track, as does he, of just how far he travels, though Jan Vlasák’s superb production design creates a procession of subtly shifting rural cultures.) An itinerant shaman (Alla Sokolova) declares him a vampire and takes him on as a slave; a psychotic miller (Udo Kier, who else) does likewise, only with more hysterical bouts of violence; a Catholic priest (Harvey Keitel) briefly shows the Boy some charity before entrusting him to a shifty parishioner (Julian Sands) who rapes him repeatedly alongside the regular beatings to which he has become accustomed.
And so on and so forth, which is not to sound blasé about the severity of abuse depicted here: Marhoul’s aim, perhaps, is to leave viewers numbed rather than shocked by these obscene violations, rather as everyone on screen — including, eventually, the Boy himself — has been desensitized by years of such agony. In this regard, “The Painted Bird” is inarguably effective and immersive, its hard, unyielding gaze backed up by the muscularity of its craft. The clean-lined elegance of Smutný’s compositions — which often render human scuffles small against expansive natural backdrops — evoke a disinterested world that will endure whatever our burdened protagonist’s fate.
That vivid physical arduousness does, however, come at the expense of a more poetic payoff in Marhoul’s adaptation, bar the titular allegory of an errant bird, flecked with human paint, being attacked for its difference on its return to the flock. There’s no spiritual catharsis here, just the endgame of being barely alive, and all gestures along the way should be taken more or less at face value. When a Russian soldier (played with taciturn solemnity by Barry Pepper) gifts the Boy with one of his guns, it may be the most tender thing one human does for another in this waking nightmare. Still, it’s a gun. What kind of kindness is that?