Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 16, 2020 9:29 am 
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The boy who saw too much

Czech director Václav Marhoul's remarkable adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski's controversial Sixties work The Painted Bird is a devastating WWII version of a picaresque novel. It follows a boy from 1939 to 1945, ages six to twelve in an "inter-slavic" invented language to avoid saddling any one Eastern European country with the horrors that occur - too horrible to be taken literally, but how can they be taken otherwise? Through it all the mostly mute boy (Petr Kotlar) is impassive, while seeing eyes gauged out, being beaten, buried up to the neck to be pecked at by crows, be the object of rural sex perverts and a sadistic pedophile, dumped in a manure pit, taught revenge by an ace sniper, and after numerous other awful events placed in an orphanage. Then, at last, he is retrieved by his father, whom he may not want to forgive.

In fact the last scene is redeeming. But can the source from which Marhoul has adapted the film be redeemed? When I originally read the Kozinski paperback, it seemed like a kind of pornography. In fact it had overt sexual passages for a young boy to read with urgent shame, but mostly it's a stream of violence porn - or, alternately, Holocaust porn: in fact, Norman Soloman includes The Painted Bird in his "Holocaust industry" list and points out that by the time the novel appeared, the author was already a well-known fraudster. If Kosinski (whose real name was Józef Lewinkopf) claimed the book was autobiographical, that was preposterous. The incidents are too spectacular to happen to a single person. It seems they may not only be cribbed from other experiences but from other authors. But still, Václav Marhoul has made his own movie.

Since we see the experiences not only through the boy but looking at the boy, often peering into his vividly impassive face, seeing a healthy glow return despite ordeals, we get a feel for a single experience, anyway. The non-stop stream of incidents conveys a sense, typical of the picaresque narrative, of a malleable, passive ego. Typical also, he has little to say and the trauma of events is signaled by his becoming mute.

The boy gets different surroundings, which he manages to cast off, as the action jumps to a new locale. There is a lot of wood and straw. If this is Holocaust porn, it is so only distantly. It's more often village and rural porn, delivering an impressionistic, Eastern European art movie sense of what rural life is, crude, monstrous, yet somehow vital and indestructible.

We have to admit that even here, a picaresque tale is fun. The hero - or heroine, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders being a key example - undergoes a diverting series of ordeals and transformations we are able to enjoy because we don't have to undergo them. They slip by too fast to get deep into. It's always on to the next one. A lot of this would be fun for a slightly kinky 12-year-old boy, the kind I was, who likes to fantasize about torture, lacking any real sense yet of what it is.

A key moment comes with the "Mirta" segment. This is after the boy finally enters a city, is "rescued" by Harvey Keitel's priest, turned over by him to Garvos, Julian Sands' sadistic pedophile, then. after crossing a snowy waste and falling into a frozen lake, falls into the hands of a busty blonde peasant woman who makes him her sex toy. When bestiality and incest crop up, he bolts. This leads into the savage rape and siege of a village by Kalmuks - a sequence as lively as anything by Takashi Miike. The Soviet soldiers who come to clean things up are the first positive force the boy has encountered. Gavrila (Aleksey Kravchenko) is an ardent communist and his friend Mirta (Barry Pepper) is a skilled sniper. They take the boy in hand and put him in a soviet uniform. They protect him and make him one of them. A memorable sequence shows Mirta sniping the village in revenge while the boy watches through his binoculars, and he will use the pistol Mirta gives him for his own revenge later.

This sequence suggests a kind of WWII survival that has truth in it, however fanciful is the sequence of adventures and tests. The logical final chapter is the boy's resettlement in an orphanage, which he escapes from and finds to be as violent and brutal as anywhere else.

And yet after all this, the concept of wrong has not perished. Hence the boy's anger when his father comes to the orphanage to reclaim him. His parents had sent him to a remote part of the country at the story's outset to be "safe." Instead they have abandoned him to the worst of horrors. Yet when, sitting in the bus next to his father, the boy writes his name, Joska, on the humid window glass, it's a hint that he will return, somehow, to speech and to life. In its muted way, it's a moving affirmation.

The gorgeous 35mm. black and white cinematography of Vladimír Smutný helps distance us from the ugliness of all that happens in this visually remarkable, challenging film, and also gives it a memorable unity. The source may have been plagiarized, but Marhoul has made it his own. With Udo Kier as "the Miller," who gouges out the eyes; Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Popper, and ‧Stellan Skarsgård as a German officer who is kind; and many others.

The Painted Bird, 169 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2019, when reportedly 14 people stumbled out in shock and protest. It was included in 14 other international festivals including Toronto, Vancouver, Warsaw, and Chicago.

It was to be released in the UK in March 2020. It was scheduled to be distributed in the US by IFC Films starting (in NYC and LA) April 17, 2020. That has now been changed to Opening in Select Theaters and Digital/VOD July 17, 2020. Metascore 75%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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