‘The Painted Bird’ Review: Horrors That Can’t Be Unseen


The closure of theaters would seem to have gravely wounded “The Painted Bird,” whose nonstop horrors and nearly three-hour length demand a concentrated immersion. Whether the Czech screenwriter-producer-director Vaclav Marhoul’s ambitious adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel quite translates to the screen is another matter.

A boy (Petr Kotlar) who barely speaks and, until the end, goes pointedly unnamed passes from person to person in the Eastern European countryside during World War II. He witnesses violence and bears it, picked apart like the bluntly metaphorical fowl of the title — a bird marked with paint and then sent skyward only to be attacked by its fellows.

The boy watches as a miller (Udo Kier) scoops out another man’s eyes with a spoon. A priest (Harvey Keitel) entrusts him to a farmer (Julian Sands) who acts like a devoted churchgoer but is actually a monstrous abuser. And this is to say nothing of the Nazis, from whom the boy survives largely by chance.

“The Painted Bird” falls deeply in the shadow of the 1985 Soviet classic “Come and See,” another boy’s-eye chronicle of the war’s terrors. But “The Painted Bird” is less a sensory assault than a pictorial study; each black-and-white widescreen frame appears composed less for effect than for posterity. The dubbing of the international cast adds another layer of disorientation. (Why does this Russian soldier look like Barry Pepper? Because he’s played by Barry Pepper.) And while Kosinski’s prose renders the grotesque vivid by understatement, this adaptation often seems to have little purpose beyond literal-minded visualization.

The Painted Bird
Not rated. In Czech, German, Russian and Slavic Esperanto, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 49 minutes. Rent or buy on Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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