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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Painted Bird is an extremely bleak, violent adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's equally harrowing 1965 novel. The drama follows a young, unnamed boy (Petr Kotlár) as he travels from one dangerous, disturbing situation to another in war-torn Eastern Europe during World War II. While this isn't strictly a Holocaust drama, it's eventually made clear that the boy is Jewish and was supposed to be hiding with an elderly woman in the countryside -- until she unexpectedly died, leaving him utterly alone. This film is not for the faint of heart: It includes an almost unwatchable amount of upsetting violence, all of which the young main character experiences or witnesses. There's domestic and sexual abuse, pedophilia, statutory rape, suggested incest, bestiality, anti-Semitic attacks, animal cruelty, torture, and distress. It's not easy to watch even for adults -- when it made the rounds of the European film festival circuit, audiences were known to walk out -- and it's definitely not meant for children or teens.
What's the story?
THE PAINTED BIRD is based on late Polish author Jerzy Kosiński's controversial 1965 novel about an unnamed Eastern European preteen boy who wanders from horrific circumstance to horrific circumstance during World War II. The boy (Petr Kotlár) had initially been left hidden in the care of an elderly peasant woman, but when she dies unexpectedly, he accidentally burns down her house in shock and is forced to flee. In one village, he's considered an omen and is given over to an old soothsayer, who considers him a vampire. Although he survives her enslavement, he goes on to meet a motley crew of people. Each chapter of his journey is marked by a subtitle giving a new character's name(s): There's a heartsick bird catcher, a sadistic miller (Udo Kier) and his abused wife, a well-meaning priest (Harvey Keitel) who unknowingly hands the boy over to a pedophile congregant (Julian Sands), a surprisingly sympathetic Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgard), a sexually deviant woman, and a kinder-than-expected Red Army officer (Barry Pepper). All the while, the story takes the boy across a bleak, war-torn landscape.
Is it any good?
This technically impressive and brilliantly performed but incredibly difficult to watch WWII drama is the sort of haunting, harrowing movie you watch once and only once. Every moviegoer has a list (whether they realize it or not) of genuinely unforgettable films that were also so gut-wrenching and brutal that they'll likely never see them again -- perhaps movies like American History X, Elephant, Funny Games, Requiem for a Dream, The Revenant, etc. Go ahead and add The Painted Bird to that list now. The boy's odyssey is mythically, biblically miserable and disturbing. Just when he ends up with someone who seems capable of momentary kindness, tragedy (almost always in the form of violence) strikes, and he's on the run again.
Czech director Václav Marhoul makes sure to set the film both nowhere and everywhere in Eastern Europe. The characters speak a Slavic "Esperanto," a fictional pan-Slavic language that allows for familiar international actors (Kier, Keitel, Skarsgard, Sands, Pepper, etc.) to speak without sounding as obviously foreign. Kudos to young actor Kotlár, who has barely any speaking lines and must convey the boy's every emotion with his body -- particularly his face, with its haunted and haunting eyes. The human degradation he has to witness and endure is nearly unprecedented in film. The cinematography is beautifully rendered in black and white, and the fact that it can be appreciated given the content says a lot about director of photography Vladimír Smutný's talent. Like the scene of the vultures pecking at the main character's head, drawing blood until he's rescued at the last minute, this is a film that will poke holes in your heart and soul until the last moment, when a not-so-happily-ever-after reunion signals that, despite the horrors, humanity endures -- traumatized but grateful.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the amount of violence in The Painted Bird. Is it necessary to the story? When is it shown overtly versus implied? Does realistic violence impact audiences differently than stylized or fantasy-based violence?
The director, like the author who wrote the book the movie is based on, says the story isn't strictly a Holocaust drama. But how do the Holocaust and WWII impact the narrative? Why are WWII stories still so prevalent in popular culture?
The movie explores sexual debasement and deviancy. How could this be interpreted against the background of war? How are death and sex linked in the movie?
- On DVD or streaming: July 17, 2020
- Cast: Petr Kotlár, Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel
- Director: Václav Marhoul
- Studio: IFC
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, History, Misfits and Underdogs
- Character strengths: Courage, Perseverance
- Run time: 169 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 4, 2020
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