Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Movie with Abe: The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird
Directed by Václav Marhoul
Release TBD

There is a lot of suffering in this world, and it’s often hard to imagine the horrible things people will do to each other. There are ways of showcasing those miseries that feel justified, because they serve to explore the depths of humanity and reach some greater conclusion about why people do what they do. In other cases, however, portraying intensely disturbing behavior feels entirely unnecessary, serving no purpose other than to shock or startle. Doing so without a large goal can be entirely off-putting, and attempting to glean some meaning from that can be truly difficult.

A young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) wanders through Eastern Europe during World War II, enduring much abuse at the hands of nearly everyone he encounters. Initially sold as a vampire and attacked by birds while he is buried in the ground with only his head sticking out, he is rescued by a kindly priest (Harvey Keitel), only to find himself in the care of a depraved abuser (Julian Sands) who terrifies him into silence. As he is transported from one bad situation to another even worse one, he meets hate at every juncture, directed at him based on his religion, his appearance, or even just the fact that he no longer knows who he is anymore.

This is one hell of a depressing film with absolutely no upside to be found. It’s reassuring to learn that there were many walkouts among audience at film festivals where this film played due to the extreme nature of the violence portrayed on screen, simply because that means their experience was similar to this reviewer’s. The source material, the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, was also controversial after its publication due to initial claims of its basis in fact that later turned out to be untrue. The Holocaust is a disturbing enough subject, and this film does little to offer commentary on the atrocities it portrays other than unnerve the watcher to an impossible point.

This film, which made the ten-wide shortlist of films competing for Best International Feature as the official selection from the Czech Republic, clocks in at a staggering two hours and forty-nine minutes. That runtime feels deeply excessive, especially because so little happens in between the many moments of misery depicted on screen. This film is reminiscent of the slow-burn style of Colombia’s “Embrace of the Serpent,” also filmed in black-and-white in a way meant to emphasize its events which in turn manages to elongate them considerably. The presence of English-speaking stars like Keitel, Sands, and Barry Pepper is puzzling, but the bigger mystery in why they would choose to participate in this brutal and entirely negative film. For a far more bearable and emphatic foreign portrayal of endurance and perseverance against staggering odds, check out Estonia’s “Truth and Justice” instead.


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