Let’s fight to survive.

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The Painted Bird follows a mostly mute and unnamed child as he flees into Eastern Europe during the second World War. He is passed from person to person, most of whom are cruel, but some show the child mercy. Early in the film, a professional bird catcher paints a bird and releases it back to its flock, where it is not recognized and ripped to pieces. The lesson here is ultimate: difference is deadly.

The boy, a wayward Jew or Romani (the narrative doesn’t confirm either), becomes a symbolic vessel for the outpouring of social hate and ignorance. From being seen as a vampire, a sexual object, a trading chip to the Nazis, or simply a nuisance, the boy is never safe.

Vaclav Marhoul’s directing is doggedly faithful to Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name. While Koniski’s work has its share of controversies, I am more interested in how the film functions as a stand alone narrative. Folks interested in looking into the veracity of the text will want to look elsewhere, and there is a lot to see on that regard.

The film is stunningly shot. Sequences of depraved violence are bracketed by near meditative shots of nature. Ultimately, the two are conflated and man’s desire and ability to slaughter one another becomes as natural as the windy landscapes.

The social contract as we recognize it does not exist in this world. Oddly, for the first forty minutes of the film, minus a single shot of a German airplane, it isn’t entirely clear what century this story exists in. The rapacity and fury of those the boy encounters showcase a world of superstition, ignorance, and hatred. This is a history uncomfortably close to our own.

Early in the narrative, after the boy’s pet is stolen from him and burned to death, his aunt informs him that the incident is his fault for he should not have been there. The victim ultimately bears the responsibility in this world as most seem to have no moral compass. Only the pursuit of carnal appetite drives them. I had wondered at first if the narrative was diffusing consciousness into a bodily predation to make a point about the inhumanity of man, but I think it is rather arguing that such a state is the natural existence of humanity. The fears and prejudices of people lead them to commit atrocities, and with state sanctioned hatred ripping through the countryside the loathing of the other is amplified.

Those in power manipulate those without. The social hierarchy is based on strength and in-group behavior alone. The rarity the boy is taken care of (whether by the bird catcher or a priest) these individuals represent an extreme minority. The priest, played by Harvey Keitel is elderly and sick, so providing for the child places a burden on him that he is not capable of lifting. Tragically, a local villager volunteers to care for the boy but only does so to enact his pedophilic desires. The lesson here is that even when one person has a moral code those around them may not. While the priest suspects mistreatment, there is little he can do to protect the boy.

It is hard to not think of Hard to Be a God when viewing The Painted Bird. Both films showcase the idea that humanity, without guidance, will be content to live in its own shit and torment one another (and that state powers keep this cycle going to stay in power). Even without Nazi influence, these small communities seem stuck in beliefs that any outsider is a threat.

This is not to say that the brutality of the Nazi regime is ignored. However, the cruelty and violence from the regime is more mechanized and logistical. The Nazis work within a social construct, and their closeness to technological advancement changes the violence in the film. In the wild, the carnal actions against the boy seem free of any inhibition. Once he is in a more populated area the violence changes and forces itself to fit the state sanctioned ideals of antisemitism. For example, it is fine to torment the Jewish child, but the act of pedophilia remains hidden in the city. These differences in violence are stark and show that humanity will adjust to the social situation, but ultimately the cruelty remains.

Numerous scenes beg for analysis, and the greater importance of moments might not be immediately clear. The boy is given an army coat by a Russian soldier and told he will “grow into it.” The symbolism here might be obvious, but it is profound. In a film of relentless tragedy, it is easy to forget that this boy will likely grow into a monster due to the treatment he has been given. However, this is not an inevitability, evil is a choice. While this film argues the natural impulse of humanity may be vile, it is not the only one. Within the world of The Painted Bird the victim is blamed, but the viewer knows better (I hope) and sees that there is a better option.

The film is being criticized for the depictions of extreme violence. For me, showing the brutality without any pomp or Hollywood magic makes for a more visceral and realistic view. There is no score to guide us through, few reprieves from the darkness, and no guiding story arc to confirm to us that everything will be okay. The violence is important to the narrative. However, this is not going to be a film for everyone.

People are going to get stuck on the violence, which is unfortunate. There are moments of such depravity that it is almost laughable, but even these moments make a larger point. (The scene I am referring to involves a goat—that’s all I’ll say). I can see the argument that perhaps the film should have pulled back a little, but I disagree with this premise overall. The film is designed to rattle us into recognizing the reality of ignoring the hatred and fear of the other by groups state sanctioned or not. There can be no pulled punches in something so important.

One of the best films of the year.

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