CALLERI: ‘The Painted Bird’ soars as it shocks movie watching sensibilities

IFC Films   A young boy’s journey amidst the horrors of World War II takes him through a quiet forest in “The Painted Bird.”

The Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski published 15 novels and collections of essays; however, the three that stand out are “The Painted Bird,” “Steps,” and “Being There.”

The latter was made into a great film, which is directed by Hal Ashby and stars Peter Sellers as Chance, a gardener who becomes an object of media fascination in a celebrity-obsessed America. “Being There” is available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

“The Painted Bird” was published in 1965 as a work of fiction and has long been the subject of controversy because of allegations of the misappropriation of information from human sources or the invention of same, lies from the author about where he was and what he did as a child during World War II, and outright plagiarism. There were allegations that parts of the book were “drawn” from a previously published and generally forgotten book by another author, ethnographer Henryk Biegeleisen, who wrote about Polish literature.

Kosinski, who was born in Lodz, Poland in 1933, managed to mostly finesse his way out of problems regarding the authenticity of “The Painted Bird,” but his health and mental acuity slowly suffered, and he committed suicide in 1991 in Manhattan, where he lived.

The novel is extraordinarily well-written. Kosinski’s voice shine through. The book paints a bleak picture of the life of a young boy, who must cope with the horrors of World War II as they are being unleashed upon Eastern Europe.

The movie version of “The Painted Bird” is a journey through a shock corridor the likes of which has rarely been seen in a film.

The story being told is as bleak as anything I’ve watched. It’s also riveting. It commands your attention even as you are repelled by what you are witnessing.

Director Vaclav Marhoul, who was born in 1960 in Prague, when it was a Czechoslovakia under Communism, wants audiences to understand the savagery of war as it affects civilians, how it works against the body and mind, how it transforms emotions, and how it shatters one’s equilibrium. Europeans not only scavenged for food and shelter, but they also struggled to stay alive in the face of the horrific menace of the machinery of war. Hearts were broken. Souls were crushed. It took a certain level of skill to survive. And, it took luck.

Director Marhoul has also written the screenplay, and he pulls no punches, leading the audience on a descent into Hell without equivocation. His film runs 169-minutes and after watching it, you feel as if you’ve been turned inside out.

Because of the superiority of Marhoul’s bravura filmmaking talent, the brilliance of Vladimir Smutny’s black and white cinematography, and Ludek Hudec’s razor-sharp editing, I never felt the movie’s length, but I certainly felt its power and understood its warning that barbarity on the planet is ever-present.

In the midst of the madness that has turned Europe into a slaughterhouse, the young unnamed boy at the center of the story is sent by his parents, who are hiding from the Germans, to live with an elderly woman who, early-on, will die in front of him. He reacts as any child would, and his reaction is terrifying.

The boy then begins to wander seemingly without purpose through frightening forests and fetid fields. Villages are places of appalling danger. He will be seized, screamed at, traded, beaten, and abused. Each affront to his being is a hurdle he must conquer. You fear the next stop on his journey as much as he does. The director holds back nothing.

The world is throbbing with violence. Not even a child is safe from lunatic adults. One demented women believes he is a vampire. What she does to him is shocking. A priest tries to help him, but this so-called help is in the guise of a person who is capable of unspeakable cruelty.

The boy is an innocent stained by the sins of adults. Because his hair and eyes are dark, he is suspect. Is he Jewish? Is he a Gypsy? There’s a war waging, yet some people insist on hanging onto ugly superstitions and religious bigotry. They fear the unknown. They fear “the other.”

Are there tender moments? One stood out. A Nazi soldier hands the boy a bit of food for momentary comfort. Of course, the man has something else on his mind, he has to kill someone.

At the Venice Film Festival let year, where “The Painted Bird” had its world premiere, scores of people fled the theater as the movie was playing. Some were disgusted; some horrified. At the Toronto International Film Festival, all three screenings had walkouts. Marhoul has cast some well-known actors in daring roles, including Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Julian Sands, Udo Kier, and Barry Pepper.

The most extraordinary acting comes from Petr Kotlar as the young boy. He’s a wonderfully expressive performer, and you ache for his character. Your heart pounds at the gruesome nature of what surrounds him. You fervently hope he will escape the many shocking situations in which he finds himself.

“The Painted Bird” is another streaming movie that deserved to have been released to theaters. Find the largest television you can.

The film is strictly for adults and mature teenagers. It’s available through cable television’s On Demand services and some streaming providers.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at

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