The Painted Bird – Movie Review

In these dark and, for some, depressing times, the world needs a film like The Painted Bird, a movie so relentlessly bleak and cruel it deserves its own category. About a boy who, during World War II, discovers that every single person in Eastern Europe is an awful, awful human being, Václav Marhoul’s searing drama is nonetheless breathtaking to watch.

Based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird stars young Czech actor Petr Kotlár, who despite rarely speaking carries this three-hour epic largely on his shoulders. Kotlár’s character suffers from all kinds of brutality, and the pain builds on his face with every passing scene. 

But the movie is very much Marhoul’s film, a visually arresting experience that uses his nameless protagonist as a vessel to depict the horrors of war and the fear of, and subsequent hostility toward, outsiders. The title aligns to a scene in which a peasant paints a bird and releases it into the sky, only for it to be immediately attacked by the rest of the flock for looking different.

For its audience, The Painted Bird feels like an emotional bludgeoning, where only brief, fleeting relief occurs. The opening scene, in which Marhoul holds nothing back, is hard to sit through, and it never lets up from there. 

In other words, as good as the movie is, you have to ask yourself: is it worth it?

I typically judge films based on three very rudimentary and of course subjective metrics: 1) is it entertaining? 2) Would I watch it again? 3) Would I recommend it to others, notably friends and family? The answer to all three is unequivocally “no,” and yet it is hard to deny that Marhoul has created something special here. 

Still, it could be said that The Painted Bird deserves respect more than appreciation; it is so consistently depressing, brutal and uncivil to the point The Boy’s journey almost becomes repetitive, the movie’s three-hour runtime excessive. But for those glutton for punishment, The Painted Bird is a beautiful shot and undeniably commanding film.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.


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