Everyone knows the saying “always look on the bright side” but when there is nothing but brutality and evil, this can be a pretty strenuous task. That being said, there can be some beauty found in the darkness. And this is the case for Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of The Painted Bird.

The near three-hour long screen version Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name, is shot entirely in black and white, is completely filled with natural sounds of the environment, with no musical score at all. But for all its technical and cinematic beauty, the underlining gruesome brutality which runs throughout the film is something that gets increasingly bleaker with each scene.

The Painted Bird begins with a young boy being chased, beaten, and forced to watch while his pet ferret is urinated on, set on fire, and burned to death, and this is just an amuse-bouche of what is set to come for the rest of the film. As a viewer, we follow the narrative through the eyes of Joska (Petr Kotlár) who witnesses horrors beyond his young years, from assault, animal cruelty, sexual abuse and in one case a man having his eyes gouged out with a fork.

The use of minimal dialogue and lack of musical score makes these scenes a hard watch but something that you cannot look away from. In one scene Joska is buried in the ground, with just his head above the ground to allow birds to peck at his skull. The sound is toe-curling but the way the scene is shot makes it picturesque and weirdly captivating.

A lot of credit has to go to cinematographer Vladimír Smutný who’s framing of the shots and close-ups of faces are just breathtaking and for all the grotesqueness of the film, he brings an element of beauty to the film. After a while, it becomes an endurance test, undeniably provocative but like a car crash, you can’t turn away from the horror you are seeing on screen.

As well as Kotlár, Marhoul has drafted in some of the world’s top character actors to put an exclamation point on the film. With Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård, and Barry Pepper all provide showstopping but nuanced performances,

There is an element of the Lars Von Trier school of directing sprinkled into this film, but unlike the Anti-Christ director, Marhoul’s brutality feels natural and just adds to the denseness of the movie. For all its brutality and testing of will to endure the near three-hour film, this film is nothing short of stunning. It has a feel of one of those films that if you have seen it you want to tell everyone about it and you need others to experience exactly what you have as a viewer.

Dir: Václav Marhoul

Scr: Jerzy Kosinski (novel), Václav Marhoul (adaptation)

Cast: Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård, Barry Pepper, Petr Kotlár

Prd: Tatiana Detlofson, Volodymyr Filippov, Aleksandr Kushaev, Václav Marhoul, Zuzana Mistríková, Lubica Orechovská, Igor Savychenko

DOP: Vladimír Smutný

Country: Poland

Year: 2020

Run time: 169 minutes

The Painted Bird is in cinemas and digital now.

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