The Painted Bird
The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul, 2019)
I have just come out of the most controversial movie in the London Film Festival. I was told many people left the cinema in the middle. At the screening I was in, I counted six. I heard suffocated tears. I cried too.
The Painted Bird is a visual black & white project of 2h50mins length and only 9 minutes of dialogue, and most of the lines are not delivered by the main character. For Czech filmmaker Marhoul, cinema is made by images. His point of view contrasts with the vision of many other filmmakers, who insist on the "power of words", thus failing to deliver a cinematic experience per se. A recent example of this flaw is Matthias & Maxime, by Xavier Dolan, that deserves no further comments.
Despite focusing on the odyssey of a Jewish stray boy during World War II, the feature is not a war movie. And it is not about Holocaust either, though tragedy is blurring out of the screen. In my opinion, drama is the proper genre to represent the atrocities that happened then, and that is possibly happening in many places right now. Taika Waititi certainly disagrees with me, as he picked up another boy and threw him into a series of jokes during the same war in his most recent film, Jojo Rabbit, also in London Film Festival.
So this boy is missing his parents. He was sent to his aunt's house, probably to save him from the Nazis, but his stay is interrupted by his aunt's sudden death and a fire in the house. From that moment on, the boy will meet a series of adults who will abuse him in all sorts of possible ways. There's evil beyond your imagination. The Painted Bird is a Pinocchio without a Blue Fairy, and no sign of lies from the child. At least not until he grows up.
The film's rhythm is like a river flow, comprehending waterfalls, valleys, upper course, lower course -- more lowers than uppers -- and finally flowing towards the ocean. There is naturally no coming back in this process. The boy loses his childhood.
His growth is determined by all the fish under these waters, or in other words, the rest of the fabulous cast: Udo Kier (also in Bacurau), Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands and Jitka Cvancarová. Each of them opens a chapter, named after their characters. That is how the tempo keeps pacing the story.
The Painted Bird is controversial not because of its brutal scenes. The audience today is used to violence in films and TV. It's hard to watch it because it depicts the nebulousness of mankind. Through its shades, though, the film exhales utter beauty.
Check the showtimes of The Painted Bird at the festival official site.