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It may just as well be mentioned at the outset that the Czech Václav Marhouls The Painted Bird is hardly a movie for everyone. Not because it is a nearly three-hour-long feature film in black and white, although it will certainly deter some, but because the content is so decidedly strict.

The first scene shows the main character, a Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) who in large parts of the story remains both dumb and nameless, while being chased by a group of other children. They catch him again and turn on the little animal he has tried to save from them. However, this is only the beginning of a long series of gruesome events the young boy will experience during the film.

Bestial episodes

When he discovers that his older aunt is dead, the boy in confusion sets fire to the cabin the two live in. After this, he sets off on foot alone through a number of villages and scattered populated areas in Eastern Europe.

The Painted Bird takes place during World War II, which the people in the film as well as their mentality are strongly influenced by. The boy is at the mercy of the people he meets on the journey, but most of the time they have less good intentions – and are responsible for several of the atrocities mentioned in the film. For example, a man has his eyes removed with tablespoons, a woman is brutally raped with a bottle, and still others have children and animals. Although exceptionally, the main character also meets one or two well-meaning people.

A walk through the circles of hell à la Dante, or through the bestiality
history à la Bjørneboe.

Central to the story is a symbol-laden scene in which a man paints the wings of a bird before releasing it. The bird flies up to its flock, but is attacked by the species' relatives and falls dead to the ground – because it is different. An effective image of the pogroms that makes the boy rarely feel safe, but also of a more general lack of acceptance of those who stand out.

In the same way that the places in the film are not named, the dialogue is in "interslavic", a constructed language that should be understandable to all Slavic speakers. The director has stated that this is done so that the people in the film are not associated with specific countries. However, German is also spoken, since German soldiers are among the people the young boy meets along the way – but they are not necessarily the ones who perform the most bestial acts. Several of the characters are also portrayed by internationally known actors such as Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands and Barry Pepper.

Controversial author

The film is based on the novel of the same title from 1965, written by Jerzy Kosiński, who emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1957. The same author wrote the novel Being There (1970), which was filmed by director Hal Ashby in 1979 with Peter Sellers in the lead role – well known here at home under the title Welcome, Mr. Chance.

Kosiński was a controversial author. Being There was accused of plagiarizing a Polish success novel, while it has been claimed that The Painted Bird was written by others for him. In addition, the latter novel was mistakenly taken for being autobiographical, not least because the author had spoken loudly about similar atrocities he had allegedly experienced and witnessed during World War II. Kosiński was admittedly a child in Poland during the war, but he and the rest of the family survived with the help of non-Jewish Poles who protected them at the risk of their own lives.

Medieval evil

Several critics have drawn parallels between the filming of The Painted Bird and Elem Klimov's Soviet feature film Go and see! from 1985. It is an understandable comparison, as both films depict the horrors of war through the eyes of a child – but The Painted Bird is still a pretty different beast. In this film, the actual acts of war are not at the center. Instead, one is illuminated malice which seems deeply rooted in the rural population, and which, like these people, almost appears as medieval. Here, evil is sometimes banal, as Hannah Arendt put it. At other times it is an expression of distress and desperation, and at other times it is pure sadism.

The film is beautifully photographed with 35mm film by Vladimír Smutný. The absence of color can possibly create a welcome distance to the most violent individual elements, but at the same time corresponds with the way we are used to seeing this war from documentary footage. The episodic structure, where the story is divided into chapters by the names of people the boy meets, in turn contributes to giving the film a somewhat fabulous feel. The Painted Bird does not strive for a completely realistic realism and can be seen as a more allegorical narrative: A walk through the circles of hell à la Dante, or through the history of bestiality à la Bjørneboe.

Some audiences may feel compelled to leave the cinema

Left the movie theater

Some audience members may feel compelled to leave the cinema, as several reportedly did then The Painted Bird premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. And you can certainly ask questions about why one must witness these gruesome scenes, especially if the story is to be read metaphorically. The most obvious answer, however, is that the film describes an unusually cruel and brutal time, in which far worse events actually took place than that. The Painted Bird shows. History has also taught us that humans are capable of committing unbelievably vicious acts. This evil can undoubtedly be fueled by war, but is by no means limited to such circumstances. Maybe the reminder of this potential evil is timely enough in itself?

The Painted Bird is, as I said, hardly a movie for everyone. For the rest of us, it is a powerful, harrowing and, in its own way, magnificent work.

The Painted Bird has its Norwegian cinema premiere on 9 October.

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