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.