Around the third hour or so of “The Painted Bird,” a grueling, pristinely photographed compendium of wartime horrors, the camera unexpectedly alights on a small, precious act of human decency. A soldier, seated in a tree overlooking a nearby village, quietly passes a piece of bread to his companion, a young boy whose nightmarish journey we have been following. This gentle idyll doesn’t last long — the soldier has a rifle and, soon, an unfortunate target in his sights — but it still has the merciful feel of a respite, a reminder of kinder impulses that existed long ago, before the world descended into unspeakable barbarism.
That barbarism is the subject of this long, comprehensive soul-lashing of a film from the Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul, who adapted it from the novel of the same title by the Polish-born author Jerzy Kosinski. The book, about a 6-year-old boy who bears mute, terrified witness to every form of human evil during World War II, drew widespread international acclaim on its publication in 1965. It also attracted significant controversy when it became clear that the novel, which Kosinski had originally passed off as an account of his own wartime childhood, was in fact a work of fiction.
For all the damage that admission did to the author’s reputation, which was also battered by accusations of plagiarism and false authorship, it hardly blunted the narrative drive or the raw, lyrical power of “The Painted Bird” on the page. And it’s ultimately of little consequence in the movie, which presents itself as an unambiguous work of fiction, albeit a horribly credible one. Moving with systematic determination from atrocity to atrocity, it spends two hours and 49 minutes patiently assembling a daisy chain of human misery.
Shot on starkly beautiful black-and-white 35-millimeter film by the cinematographer Vladimír Smutn´y, and segmented into nine chapters, the movie begins not long after the boy (played by an excellent Petr Kotlár) is sent by his parents to wait out the war in the care of an older peasant woman, Marta (Nina Šunevič). One evening he finds Marta dead, a discovery so startling that he accidentally knocks over a torch and burns down the house. In another film, this might be considered a tragedy. As one small incident in this near-Boschian hellscape, it almost qualifies as a moment of levity — the rare accidental misfortune unmotivated by malice or depravity.
From there, the boy is forced to wander aimlessly among dry fields and thatched-roof huts dotting a vast, unspecified stretch of Eastern European landscape. He is sold, adopted, imprisoned and passed along. Sometimes he is the recipient of horrific abuse; sometimes he is merely an observer of it, which is scarcely better. Some of the people he encounters along the way are played by well-known actors including Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands, Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper, whose familiar faces can be jarring but also give you something to latch on to — a bit of psychological individuation in a world of otherwise indiscriminate, monotonous suffering.
As in the novel, the boy himself is never introduced by name and the details of his backstory remain unspecified — the better for us to perceive him as not just an individual but a representative. As played with solemn grace by Kotlár, he is every abandoned innocent, a stand-in for countless nameless, persecuted others. He is also dark of hair, eyes and complexion, and thus immediately incurs the anti-Semitic, anti-Romani bigotry of the fair-skinned people he encounters, their hatred inflamed further by small-town superstition, religious intolerance and basic predatory nastiness.
At one point he comes under the roof of an old healer (Alla Sokolova) who accuses him of being a vampire and has him buried in the dirt up to his neck — a curious remedy that nearly causes his eyes to get pecked out by an unkindness of ravens. Fortunately, he manages to keep his peepers; the young plowboy he meets later, the one who makes the grim mistake of staring lustfully at a miller’s wife, is not so lucky. (Surely he should have known better; didn’t he notice that the miller is played by Udo Kier?)
What Kosinski showed us in prose and what Marhoul means to show us in images is a world gone irretrievably mad, in which the trauma of war both exposes and exacerbates the collective reality of the human condition, with its limitless capacity for greed, lust, spite and sadism. The various transgressions either depicted or heavily implied here include child rape, child torture, genital mutilation, bestiality and many, many other forms of animal cruelty in a movie that could just as well have been called “The Decapitated Chicken,” “The Violated Goat” or “The Immolated Squirrel.” The actual title derives from a scene in which one of the boy's kinder guardians (Lech Dyblik) applies a dollop of white paint to a bird’s feathers — and demonstrates just how quickly and viciously members of a group will turn on one of their own.
At times you may feel grateful for Marhoul’s decision to shoot in monochrome, as well as his habit of staging every tableau of torture just obliquely enough to keep you watching. Not everyone stayed in their seats when “The Painted Bird” premiered last fall at the Venice and Toronto film festivals, where it generated reports of mid-screening walkouts — a not-uncommon occurrence, and sometimes a calling card, for films whose commercial life depends on the skillful cultivation of controversy. But Marhoul, making his third feature after two other literary adaptations, “Mazany Filip” (2003) and “Tobruk” (2008), doesn’t appear to be thumbing his nose at anyone. His work has none of the taboo-shattering impishness of a Lars von Trier or the lysergic craziness of a Gaspar Noé, to name two notorious festival-circuit provocateurs.
For better or worse, “The Painted Bird” is a punishingly sincere vision, imposing in its single-mindedness and numbing in its effect. Should you choose to welcome it into your living room, you may well find yourself lunging for the remote when a group of women brutally assault one of their own, or when Russian soldiers descend on a German town and exact a measure of bloody payback. But you might also find yourself leaning in, for the simple reason that relentless screen violence, even at its most repellent, has a way of forging its own momentum.
That’s especially true when a filmmaker is working at Marhoul’s obviously high level of craftsmanship. This is a film of beautifully lighted compositions, muscular camera movements and immersive period scenery (the sets were designed by Jan Vlasák). It’s also a film whose immaculate re-creation of the wartime past I kept calling into question — not because it’s physically unpersuasive, but because the milieu itself never risks taking on a life of its own, never seems to exist for any reason other than its characters’ debasement and destruction.
That might be very much to Marhoul’s pessimistic point, and to Kosinski’s as well. But the pummeling, totalizing horror of “The Painted Bird” ultimately proves its undoing. In the greatest films about rural and societal collapse, Elem Klimov’s “Come and See” and Béla Tarr’s “Sátántangó” among them, you come away with something more than bludgeoning misanthropy and calculated shocks. You get a rich, nuanced sense of the past as it once existed, and you feel the lingering rhythms of ordinary life even after they’ve been fatally disrupted. “The Painted Bird” is a challenging film, impressively and proudly hard to watch. It’s also just a little too easy.