By Roger Costa
THE PAINTED BIRD
Life will not be easy for a Jewish boy during the Nazi invasion in Czech Republic, as he journeys through villages, tragically crossing paths with extremely cruel figures.
Since the opening scene, the little guy is seen as a victim, being jumped and kicked by a group of other children, recognizing him as a Jew. Left at the care of his aunt, she advises him to stay indoors, mentioning he won’t be staying long. On that very night, the curse of his hidden life changes drastically, and he’s forced to go on a quest for survival, escaping from village to village, being rescued by some, violently abused by others, and experiencing what human cruelty really is.
After the few words exchanged with his aunt, the boy stays mostly silent, only observing and guiding his opposite characters with looks and movements. He’s accused of being a demon, tortured by an entire community, and sold to a witch. Managing to escape her, and a crow attack, he continues his journey, boarding at various situations that test his limits, endurance and strength. In each act where he’s captured and kept under disgraceful circumstances, being dominated by both men and women, in different levels of cruelty, physical, mental and sexual, he’s being shaped into a traumatizing maturity.
His innocence, hope and human rights are taken away by these characters with abusive interests. Only one priest, played by Harvey Keitel, feels compassion about the Jewish boy, trying to rescue him from his affliction. 9-year-old actor Petr Kotlar is devastatingly good and convincing as the boy, a breakthrough performance built on silent anger and suffocated pain. Director Václav Marhoul addresses issues such as abuse, ignorance, intolerance, male domination, and violence, pointing to facts on how an entire society is manipulated by political decisions, blinded by the horrors of war.
The astounding cinematography, shot on a thick, Gothic B&W, enhances the atmospheric sense throughout the narrative, as the boy faces many obstacles and life-threatening risks. Winner of the UNICEF Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the film finds moments of dark humor, leveled with the gore, such as the crow scene attack, the women’s vengeance against a mad hooker who seduced their kids, and a couple severely punished after getting caught on adultery.
Intense, thought-provoking, haunting and heartbreaking, it’s a fabulous, well-done absurdist tragicomedy, with a powerful humanist message, all seen through the eyes of a long-suffering abandoned boy.
(The Painted Bird is part of the 2020 Oscars shortlist for Best International Film. An IFC Films Release.)