Friday, July 17, 2020

The Painted Bird: Adapting Kosinski

For years, Poland’s Communist regime conducted a deliberate and malicious disinformation campaign to discredit novelist and human rights activist Jerzy Kosinski. John Corry exposed The Village Voice’s willingness to do their dirty work in the pages of The New York Times. Today, Kosinski is still widely read, including in Poland where he was once forbidden, but the Voice is no longer in print. To crown his posthumous victory, the Kosinski novel the so disturbed his ideological enemies has now been adapted for the big screen. The language is the relatively new Interslavic, but the spirit and narrative remain faithful to Kosinski. Human cruelty defines the nightmarish vision of Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of The Painted Bird, which releases today in select theaters and on VOD.

A boy has been sent to live with his rustic aunt in the hopes that he will be protected from the war in the countryside. Unfortunately, her untimely death sets in motion a series of disasters that will brutalize his body and spirit. Showing no mercy, villagers violently shun him, in the ignorant superstitious belief that he is a cursed harbinger of misfortune. In some ways, this always turns out to be true, but their moral failings directly contribute to each tragic episode.

From time to time, the boy finds shelter with a sympathetic adult, like Lekh, the bird-keeper, who provides the title, by releasing a bird with painted wings, knowing full well the wild flock would tear it apart. Numerous times, he escapes likely deportation to concentration camps, most notably thanks to the intercession of a kindly (but dying) Catholic priest. He also finds an unlikely protector in the Red Army (making the Communist regime’s antipathy even more perverse). Yet, each encounter inevitably leads to fresh terror.

This is a tough film that initially shocks viewers and soon exhausts them. Nevertheless, there is a purpose behind the horrors and humiliations rained down on the Boy. It is like witnessing literal Hell on Earth, which by definition, never seems to end. Indeed, viewers will feel like they too are staggering through a hostile Hellscape, which is quite an accomplishment for Marhoul.

Stylistically, the dark, immersive intimacy of
Painted Bird shares a kinship with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Aleksey German and Bela Tarr, but it has a stronger narrative drive. Indeed, it is one horrendous darned thing after another for the Boy. It compares very directly with Elem Klimov’s Come and See, but it makes the Soviet epic look positively upbeat. This is high auteurist cinema that makes no concessions to popular taste, but Vladimir Smutny’s black-and-white cinematography is undeniably arresting.

Petr Kotlar’s horrifyingly natural and believable performance as the Boy (whose name we only learn very late in the day) will haunt the audience. We are not just watching the death of his innocence, but the death of his soul. Of course, that would make him a perfect “comrade” to navigate the coming Communist regime. Udo Kier and Julian Sands have appeared in their share of horror movies, but they have never been more chilling than they are here, playing the Miller and the predatory Garbos. Ironically, the compassion and dignity Harvey Keitel brings to the film as the compassionate Priest just makes everyone else’s brutish savagery so much worse, in contrast. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the subtlest and most complex work comes from Barry Pepper as the Red Army sniper, Mitka.

In many ways,
Painted Bird is an endurance test, but that is the whole point. It is an uncompromising, carefully crafted film, worthy of its association with the accomplished and iconoclastic Kosinski. Very highly recommended for cineastes prepared for its rigorous aesthetic and nearly three-hour running time, The Painted Bird opens today (7/17) in a handful of theaters (the Mariemont Theatre in Cincinnati) and releases simultaneously on VOD.