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The Painted Bird – 2019 Marhoul
- The entire process of making The Painted Bird took a decade for Czech director Václav Marhoul. In all the best ways, it shows. Despite the longer running time it feels like every frame is thought out. It is a meticulously curated, breathtakingly shot, sorrow epic.
- Marhoul and cinematographer Vladimír Smutný shot this on 35mm black and white at the super-wide 2.39 : 1 aspect ratio. The story of the boy Joska (Petr Kotlár) plays out over 169-minutes and nine chapters (one for each of the main people he encounters in his journey). Some of them are portrayed by recognizable faces like actors Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, and Barry Pepper. Kier has like 300 credits to his name, Stellan Skarsgård and Keitel are no strangers to risky/controversial/ambitious material, and Pepper leans into his typecasting a bit with his Saving Private Ryan role a bit as sniper.
- Joksa is a sweet-faced kid facing nearly unfathomable atrocities. He constantly refuses to answer his name or where he’s from when asked. I see a bit of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar allegory or at least letting the main character be a blank slate/model for the rest of humanity to inflict its wretched self upon.
- The story of this source material/book and Jerzy Kosinski is a fascinating read. He apparently first claimed this to be a true story, then recanted when he was called out for it.
- A jaw-dropping frame during chapter one as he watches his Aunt’s home burn from a distance.
- Sublime crooked, barren trees overhanging young Joksa.
- It is shot in Eastern Europe, it feels like doomsday (this is set during World War II), all in sumptuous black and white photography– so it is tough not to think of Bela Tarr. I can see the comparisons to Ivan’s Childhood as well.
- Chapter four, at the 43-minute mark, is where young Joska is perfectly framed by the birdcages.
- There is no music, little dialogue.
- The cruelties on display recall Pasolini’s Salo (1975), or Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015). Perhaps even the punishment of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) or Klimov’s Come and See (1985). Needless to say, this is a punishing film to watch.
- The juxtaposition of the brutality of war and the epic beauty of the surroundings does feel like Malick, or it would even make for a double-bill, twin pairing with 2019’s Beanpole .
- The titular painted bird is about being attacked for being different—not exactly a cryptic metaphor for this story set during the Holocaust. It is about being ostracized, tribalism… and ultimately nihilism.
- A splendid, gradual track left to right at the 64-minute mark. The content and blocking is from Visconti’s The Damned (1969)- but the monochrome, pristine photography would be at home in Cuaron’s Roma (2018)
- Joksa is held captive and rides in a wagon, viewing the trees upside down in another sharp photograph.
- Some of the backlash (and the reviews are positive overall) is about the endurance test of cruelty. It is a bit of Dante’s layers of Hell. Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999) faced the same. The Revenant has that a little – but that seems like a slippery slope argument—I don’t see that as being a reasonable artistic criterion.
- Even in the quieter visual moments, there is the consistent foggy Eastern European overcast sky
- At the 120-minute mark Marhoul captures the beaten man at a canted angle in the foreground as Joksa walks off into the forest in the background,
- The devastation and visual cinematic artistry are relentless: the three men hanging upside down at various depths of field.
- There is also a formal repetition to Marhoul’s shot choices—many times, the camera patiently swings behind Joksa’s head, putting the camera, and viewer, behind his eyes for the madness on display
- A Must-See film- top five of the year quality upon first viewing