“SEE THE MOVIE THAT NO AUDIENCE CAN OUTLAST!” – after actually taking in The Painted Bird, I can confirm that the horror more or less matches the headlines.
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As in the book, the shock effect of coldly detailed incest, bestiality and sexual abuse, beatings, killings and mutilation is furiously nonstop in a film of nearly three hours. Rather than numbing the viewer, however, the parade of evil is presented in a dismaying crescendo of horror that offers no escape.
Václav Marhoul’s film is at its most magnificent when it lingers on the poetry of its images.
The film’s sheer unblinking stamina is as impressive as its pristine formal composure, though it has to be said that at nearly three hours — somewhat surprising, considering the novel’s brevity — its blunt-instrument force doesn’t yield much fresh perspective on oft-dramatized atrocities.
Is The Painted Bird exaggerated? Does it go too far? Does it break the limits of taste? “Yes” on all counts. Walking out is an understandable and valid reaction but watching, getting angry, suffering and approaching understanding is also important too.
There is beauty in the 35mm black and white landscapes and framings of this painterly widescreen feature, but it stands in stark contrast with the alienating narrative and tone of a film which, like Kosinski’s book, takes a strange relish in charting the descent of simple country folk of a never-named country into sexual depravity and joyless cruelty.
Hardly any of The Painted Bird is what you would call pleasant. It is often a difficult watch at times but is a consistently engaging one.
Extending its litany of horrors to nearly three hours, the film is certainly an endurance test. Yet its potent presentation, notably Vladimir Smutny’s striking monochromatic cinematography, gives the film the raw impact of a documentary.
The Painted Bird ... is not the wallowing miserablist parade you might fear, yet not quite the Holocaust-themed masterpiece it wishes to be. But it’s always starkly compelling as a reminder of why war survival stories are essential to our understanding of innocence and beastliness.
I can state without hesitation that this is a monumental piece of work and one I’m deeply glad to have seen. I can also say that I hope to never cross its path again.