The Painted Bird: an odyssey through Europe’s bloodlands4 min read
Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is not an easy watch. From the very first scene – where a pet mink is burnt alive – the young, Jewish protagonist (Petr Kotlár) is faced with shockingly brutal and senseless acts of violence as he tries to find his way home in the midst of the Second World War.
The plot develops through a series of encounters – some touching, most malign – that give the film a bildungsroman feel where violence and trauma, rather than progress, are the uniting thread in the child’s development. Some episodes are reminiscent of some episodes from the Odyssey (Circe and the Cyclops), but these are probably coincidental given that the film displays such a comprehensive range of physical and sexual violence.
That is not to say, however, that there are no moments of beauty in the film; only that these moments are bookended by shocking moments of cruelty. During one of the film’s rare touching moments, the child joins an old bird-catcher in the field. Returning home, the man carefully takes one of the birds out of its cage, paints it white and releases it. What ensues is emblematic of the child’s wanderings: attempting to join a nearby flock, the bird is ostracised and attacked, soon falling dead to the ground.
The image of the painted bird – at once poetic and deeply disturbing – unites the otherwise disjointed encounters. The notion of innocence is important for the child and equally applies to a series of animals: the mink, the bird, a wounded horse, a goat, and cats – these last two both used in different ways for sexual pleasure. Despite the marked and beautifully-captured changes in season, the child does not age and his inability to perform sexually with the Circe-like Labina further underlines that innocence. Indeed, it could be argued that despite causing the deaths of two characters after they inflict physical and sexual aggressions on the child, his moral inculpability remains intact.
The Painted Bird is thus a forthright attack on simplistic notions of morality in the face of the absurd and debauched realities of war. Through his depictions of massacres, rape, domestic abuse, violence against animals and paedophilia, director Václav Marhoul puts the anarchy of war on full show: the bloodlands of Eastern Europe were not only caught between Hitler and Stalin, but also trapped in their own internal structures of depravity, inflamed by conflict. Vladimír Smutný’s cinematography is faultless in framing the brutality of each episode in the beautiful and haunting setting of Europe’s eastern plains.
Nonetheless, the frequency and senselessness of the violent acts ultimately dull the film’s message. One particular scene – in which a band of Cossacks and a troop of Nazis fight over a tiny village with horses, tanks and a plane – appears more gratuitous than shocking. Eventually the violence becomes predictable, and, in spite of the film’s epic length at 169 minutes, there is little time for critical reflection. As such, one cannot speak of great acting performances. Petr Kotlár’s resoluteness as the child is commendable, but feels slightly one-dimensional given the lack of character exploration. The Painted Bird also uncritically portrays what Svetlana Alexievich calls the unwomanly face of war: few female characters are awarded more than a few lines, and almost all are sexualised in perverse or horrific ways. Marhoul’s instrumentalisation of violence thus comes at the expense of a more profound narrative.
The final scene is a good illustration of the film’s shortcomings. Miraculously found by his father, the child does not respond when asked his name. Only when seeing the numbers tattooed on his father’s arm, does the child write his name in an apparent revivification of his identity. The message, then, is simple enough: the importance of remembering one’s identity. But the film’s shock-value renders the dénouement somewhat blunt. Indeed, all of the other characters’ names are disclosed and each of the films episodes is demarcated by title screens that indicate the names of the segment’s characters. At no point does the boy’s name become significant until the final scenes.
The Painted Bird certainly delivers on its promise to shock. It offers a brutal rendition of Europe’s bloodlands and the titular allegory is a particularly touching representation of the lived experiences of war. Ultimately, however, the preponderance of violence undermines the film’s rather crude final message. For anyone looking for a deeper look at war and trauma, The Painted Bird falls disappointingly short.