In­tense war story tough to watch but re­ward­ing to see

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINM­ENT - RICHARD ROEPER rroeper@sun­times.com | @RichardERo­eper

We’ve of­ten talked about the “re­peata­bil­ity” of cer­tain beloved films — fa­vorites we can watch over and over again, e.g., “Good­fel­las,” “Cad­dyshack,” “It’s a Won­der­ful Life,” “Pulp Fic­tion,” etc., etc.

Other movies make for un­for­get­table view­ing, but it’s such an in­tense, har­row­ing, hor­rific, sear­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, one wishes never to re­peat it.

“The Painted Bird” falls into the lat­ter cat­e­gory.

I re­mem­ber read­ing Jerzy Kosin­ski’s clas­sic and con­tro­ver­sial novel “The Painted Bird” at a young age and be­ing equal parts riv­eted and ter­ri­fied by the in­deli­bly hellish de­pic­tion of a Jewish boy wan­der­ing about East­ern Europe dur­ing World War II and wit­ness­ing (and of­ten en­dur­ing) an ob­scene litany of vi­o­lence, sex­ual abuse and de­viancy at the hands of cruel vil­lagers he en­coun­ters along the way — many of them hu­man mon­sters who treat the child far worse than one should treat even one’s worst en­emy. The Czech writer-di­rec­tor Vá­clav Marhoul has done an as­ton­ish­ing job of adapt­ing Kosin­ski’s novel in all its bru­tal­ity (and its mo­ments of hu­man­ity), lens­ing the story through time­less, dream- and night­mare-like 35mm monochrome and de­liv­er­ing a near-mas­ter­piece epic that will leave you ex­hausted af­ter its 169-minute run­ning time — but grate­ful you’ve seen one of the most mem­o­rable movies of the year.

Even if you’ll most likely be fine with never see­ing it again.

“The Painted Bird” is a bloody and bruised slice of life in an un­named East­ern Euro­pean coun­try near the end of World War II, where Ger­man and Rus­sian sol­diers have the thou­sand-yard stares of men who have seen far too much killing to ever re­turn to nor­malcy, where vil­lage peas­ants who might once have been friendly, de­cent peo­ple have been warped by the chaos of war — and where an un­named child we’ll call the Boy (non-pro­fes­sional Petr Kotlár, amaz­ingly authen­tic and em­pa­thetic) is left on his own and drifts from town to town, de­pend­ing on the kind­ness of strangers and in­stead find­ing him­self feel­ing the wrath of heart­less, soul­less, wicked adults.

The film is di­vided into nine chap­ters, each named af­ter var­i­ous char­ac­ters the Boy en­coun­ters along the way as he trav­els the de­cep­tively beau­ti­ful and quiet coun­try­side.

When we meet the Boy, his par­ents, fear­ing for his safety, have left him in the care of an old peas­ant woman (Nina Shunevych), who pro­vides food and shel­ter for the Boy but also puts him to work all day, ev­ery day. When the old lady dies, the Boy heads out into the vast un­known, with the vague no­tion of find­ing his par­ents, though he has no idea where they are or even if they’re alive.

Re­li­gious themes abound in “The Painted Bird,” with so-called true believ­ers of­ten ex­posed as fear­ful and ig­no­rant. A bunch of fear­ful and ig­no­rant Catholic peas­ants be­lieve the Boy might be the devil. A shaman (Alla Sokolova) de­clares the Boy is a vam­pire and takes pos­ses­sion of him as a slave. In another town, a well-mean­ing Catholic priest (Har­vey Kei­tel) res­cues the Boy from a sav­age beat­ing and teaches him to be­come an al­tar boy — but then hands him over to a clearly de­ranged and dan­ger­ous parish­ioner (Ju­lian Sands), who re­peat­edly rapes and beats the boy.

With all he suf­fers (and we’ve not come close to de­scrib­ing all the hor­rors), the Boy never gives up, never stops mov­ing, never keeps look­ing for his par­ents or at least a place where he can rest and eat and not be abused. Oc­ca­sion­ally he DOES come across a hu­man be­ing with a soul — and it’s usu­ally some­one in uni­form. Stel­lan Skars­gard is a weary, vet­eran Ger­man sol­dier who vol­un­teers to take the Boy into the woods and shoot him (for the “crime” of be­ing Jewish) — but he fires his ri­fle into the air and tells the boy to run for his life. Barry Pep­per is a Rus­sian sniper (shades of Pep­per’s role as an Amer­i­can sniper in “Sav­ing Pri­vate Ryan”) who pro­tects the boy for as long as he can, and then sends him off with a part­ing gift: a gun. It’s maybe the kind­est and most pos­i­tive and help­ful thing any­one does for the Boy through the en­tirety of his un­bear­ably painful jour­ney.


Petr Kotlár plays an East­ern Euro­pean boy left to wan­der from town to town dur­ing World War II in “The Painted Bird.”

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