A young boy is forced to flee his home and go in search of his parents during second world war. His journey includes a litany of torments including physical abuse, sexual molestation and being repeatedly made to witness death and violence. During his nightmarish trials his innocence is stripped away and his morals falter.
Like Kominski’s novel, this is an epic tale of cruelty. The boy experiences every form of abuse conceivable as he travels across the war torn country. His innocence is slowly destroyed by a host of characters betraying his natural instinct to trust. Its reminiscent of Sade as each new torment is delivered on innocent characters. The excess of these instances even becomes comical in places as eyes are removed with a spoon and a man is tricked into a put full of rats. There’s a dark humour throughout that mildly alleviates the otherwise relentless cruelty.
The relentless nature of this cruelty is very dispiriting. The world of this movie is one that is not only indifferent but spiteful and cruel. Yet featuring the holocaust as one of the boy’s trials has an interesting effect. The holocaust is not inexplicable in this film. The brutal treatment of innocent people does not come out of nowhere like a fever, but is absolutely a part of the human condition. The painted bird of the title connects the brutality of humanity to the indifference of nature. Of perhaps humanity is so abhorrent to nature that it feels the need to mercilessly stamp out those even slightly affected.
The black and white cinematography of the film is gorgeous. The focus is on human beings and their suffering or hate. The decrepit landscapes these wretches occupy, including a barren and stricken natural world, reflect the hopelessness of this world. The decision to make the film in Interslavic and to use western actors like Barry Pepper and Harvey Keitel further serves to make the film placeless.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the veracity of its authorship and autobiographical quality. But just as with the novel what matters is not that the story may be true but that it is made truthfully. Though brutal, the film has the unbearable stench of truth to it. This cruelty is not alien, it’s believable, it’s human. This is a bleak and depressing watch but it’s also compelling to see just how far it’s willing to voyage into the dark heart of humanity, especially as in doing so it further exposes it’s own depraved imagination.