Monday, June 1, 2020

The Painted Bird: In the Dawn of the Holocaust

By José Alberto Hermosillo

“The Painted Bird” is a monumental achievement, a remarkable cinematic experience - an epic journey of hope and despair. It is one of the best movies about the Holocaust ever made. It is just marvelous!

“The Painted Bird” is a war-survival movie that recapitulates the brutality perpetrated against an innocent soul in the middle of the grim and obscure devastation at the dawn of WWII.

The Painted Bird, still courtesy of IFC Films

“The Painted Bird” took audiences at festivals around the world by surprise. Spectators who stayed in the theater valued its stunning and pristine 35mm black-and-white cinematography, poetic narrative, and exquisite portrait of the early life of a vulnerable Jewish boy wandering across the hazardous trenches of international conflict.

The sharp images of child abuse, mutilation, rape, and human cruelty forced attendants to walk out at the Venice, Toronto, and Chicago film festivals. Nonetheless, this work of art was recognized with other prestigious awards, such as the Czech Lion for Best Picture and the UNICEF Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Set in several rural Eastern European locations, the unbearable three-hour-long Czech production is divided into nine suffocating chapters. Each passage is named after every adult who crosses the tortuous path of this nameless six-year-old boy – Marta, Olga, Labina, Mitka, Miller, Priest & Garbos, and others. These troublesome and unruly peasants serve as custodians of the poor boy’s faith. 
Newcomer Petr Kotlar plays young Kotlar, who, without a blink, carries the entire action with prodigious confidence.  

The Painted Bird, still courtesy of IFC Films

The boy’s journey starts with a powerful opening - a bullying scene where the villagers’ children burn his pet alive. When his Jewish father was escaping from the Germans, the family spread out - leaving the boy in the custody of a blind older woman. The matron’s sudden death preludes the poor boy’s martyrdom.
In the boy’s odyssey, every stop is a challenging experience of oppression, abuse, extreme physical pain, domestic violence, and sexual assault. 
To survive in a cruel world, the boy’s prodigious mind develops the power of observation. His resilience centers on his ability to remain silent as a mere beholder of his own life.

The film was cleverly shot in chronological order over two years. This heroic love poem permits spectators to witness the boy’s natural growth, maturity, and evolution during his treacherous path.

The Painted Bird, still courtesy of IFC Films

“The Painted Bird’s” universality dwells in its honest perception of religion that connects to all beliefs - including Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Atheism. In the film, faith is proportional to Fascism from Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism from the former USSR. Those political ideologies gambled with the lives of millions in the central part of Europe during the war.

The language spoken in the movie is called ‘Interslavic’ or ‘Interslavic Esperanto.’ It is an international language articulated in several Eastern European Countries, and we can hear Polish, German, and Russian.

Written by best-selling, prize-winner author Jerzy Kosinski, the book was published in the United States in 1965. The polemic resides in the story’s subject matter, leaving a ghastly, everlasting impression of discomfort in the readers’ minds.
Initially, the writer wanted the most famous international film directors of that time, such as Federico Fellini or Luis Buñuel, to direct the adaptation of his literary work to the big screen, but the project never materialized.

Václav Marhoul, director of The Painted Bird. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo, Festival in LA ©2019

It was only after the passing of Kosinski of an apparent suicide at the age of fifty-seven that the Czech director Václav Marhoul went to a secluded Jewish community in Chicago to secure the rights of the novel, which is considered a significant literary work about the Holocaust in proportion to Anne Frank: “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
Written in Manhattan, Kosinski set his personal story in Poland. Due to the controversial text, the northern European country wanted to avoid being associated with the project. The director set the child’s journey south of the Polish border without specifying a country, language, or even the name or last name of the boy.
The Painted Bird, still courtesy of IFC Films
The Painted Bird, still courtesy of IFC Films

Instead of looking at the series of disgusting images, viewers should see the movie as a relevant document demonstrating how low humanity can go under extreme circumstances.

For grown-up men and women suffering the calamities of war, they could see the boy as an adult and maybe as one of their own. They were protective and, at the same time, predatory. Humans tend to hurt what they love most and corrupt innocence with profane intentions and lower instincts, which is human nature. 

The Painted Bird, Hollywood reception. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo, Festival in LA ©2019

Marhoul confessed at a small gathering in Hollywood that his ambitious project took him ten years to make, including one full year to get the author’s rights. He hoped his movie would remain in the minds and hearts of the spectators for quite some time. And it will because this film is remarkable. The filmmaker’s style is rigorously academic, and his honesty impeccable - comparable to Agnieszka Holland’s heartrending Holocaust film Europe Europe.

Symbolically, Catholics can see the boy’s passage as a foray through the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Anger, Greed, and Sloth). The verse “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” can be found easily in any chapter. The film’s complexity accurately depicts a boy’s innocent life, the cruelty of his surroundings, and historical events. 

“The Painted Bird” is a film I could never forget for its originality and breathtaking images of agony and hope.

The Painted Bird Q&A. Photo: José Alberto Hermosillo, Festival in LA ©2019

“The Painted Bird” is one of the year’s best films. Therefore, the Czech Republic selected this magnificent production as its entry for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. Later, the Academy chose this drama as one of the top ten semifinalists.
This magnificent film vividly exposes the calamities of warfare, the deviousness of human behaviors, and the physical and psychological damage we can cause to children under those extreme circumstances. “The Painted Bird” is a work of art about the Holocaust - an extraordinary achievement in contemporary cinema.

The international cast makes the movie even more haunting and heartbreaking. The list of extraordinary professional actors includes Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård, Barry Pepper, Udo Kier, Nina Sunevic, & Jitka Cvncarová.

Viewers can balance this poignant production with other classic Holocaust movies such as “The Sound of Music,” “Schindler’s List,” “A Bag Full of Marbles,” or the parody “Jojo Rabbit.” But “The Painted Bird” is a hyper-realistic, dissenting, and short version of life in rural Europe at the end of the 1930s - where ignorance, superstition, and poverty prevailed.

In this story, nothing is intentional; everything is circumstantial. Metaphorically speaking, “The Painted Bird” title comes from a scene where a bird breeder paints the Bird’s feathers and sends him free. Upon the Bird’s return, he is picked to death by his flock. In the movie, the kid is that Bird and the paint becomes his stoic instinct for survival. Adults represent his flock, who will do anything to break his spirit apart.

Václav Marhoul, director of The Painted Bird. Film critic José Alberto Hermosillo, Festival in LA ©2019
Film critic José Alberto Hermosillo, Festival in LA ©2019
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