Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

Toronto Review: ‘The Painted Bird’ is an uncompromisingly daring and breathtaking work

Courtesy of TIFF

Vaclav Marhoul’s period epic is a disturbing but fascinating tale of a deconstruction of innocence and a construction of a man

Based on Jerzy Koshinki’s best-selling novel THE PAINTED BIRD, Vaclav Marhoul crafts this polarizing, disturning, not-for-the-faint-hearted but marvelous and mysteriously beautiful tale on the loss of innocence and what it’s like to truly witness the death of conscience and heart in the face of extreme brutality, continuous mistreatment, inexplicable hate and the terrors of war.

Unfairly dubbed by Venice audiences as ‘poverty porn’, THE PAINTED BIRD is deliberately brutal but never aims to create a weepy, sentimental effect. Almost a wordless screenplay, Marhoul delivers a stunning epic piece with beautifully composed shots, depicting both senseless violence and its aftermath on one child’s psyche, as well as brief – but magnetic and memorable – moments of grace, beauty and kindness. Films aiming to tug at the heartstrings by showcasing repeated – and often exaggerated – hardships often are characterized by extended catharsis moments and heartwarming – albeit forcibly – endings that aim to elevate any narrative flaws and create a tear-jerking experience for audiences who want to see and appreciate films with their hearts.

THE PAINTED BIRD does not follow that route, however, despite deliberately containing countless scenes of aggression, torture and agony. Not to be experienced by those hoping for a glossy, feel-good or weepy adaptation of Jewish suffering during the war, this is a gritty, daring and striking piece of art that is surely one of the year’s most memorable viewing experiences.

An unnamed Jewish child is separated from his parents and lives with his kind aunt. When she dies, he embarks on a journey to find home. Along the way, he meets all sorts of people – mostly aggressive, angry, fearful, doubtful and brutal – and gets to experience a true deconstruction of everything he is, loved and cared for, only to transform to a shadow of a boy who once was.

Presented in almost silent tableaux, Marhoul’s film is less of a consequential narrative and more of an observational diary of a child who grows up from the inside as he witnesses some of the worst crimes mankind is capable of. Disguised in a body of a boy, he gradually loses sense of who he is, abandoning his kindness, empathy and ability to forgive. In one of the film’s final, and quietly heartbreaking moments, one character asks him if he even remembers his name. This moment, one of the film’s rare moments of dialogue in an otherwise silent screenplay of sparse dialogue embodies the film’s uniqueness and message without resorting to sentimental theatrics.

Filmed in breathtaking 35mm black and white cinematography by Vladimir Smutny who deserves much praise and awards for his stunning work here, BIRD is everything accessible filmmakers no longer attempt to do. Despite being overlong and overwhelmingly brutal, the film remains a singular directorial achievement and quite a daring production from the Czech Republic that never attempts to pander to a distributed audience. It’s an uncompromising, unapologetic piece of art that couldn’t be more timely.

Verdict:  THE PAINTED BIRD is a rare, haunting and striking film that deserves to be defended, supported and seen. A polarizing piece that makes up for its lack of accessibility and commercial appeal by offering one of the most unique viewing experiences of the year. A high-wire act that pays off for patient viewers who will go beyond the brutality to see a story of humanity; or lack thereof.

Grade: A-

This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.

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