Episodically, The Boy encounters various characters along his way. There is Miller (Udo Kier), who takes the boy into his home despite domestic troubles and fits of rage. There is the benevolent but ailing Priest (Harvey Keitel) who brings The Boy into the church. We even watch as The Boy, a Jew, chances upon stoic Nazi, Hans (Stellan Skarsgård), and learns the rules of war from Russian soldier Mitka (Barry Pepper). The Boy’s sojourn is quite literally aimless as one person, after learning the boy is headed home, asks him where home is. The Boy simply states, “I Don’t Know.
Through pristine black and white photography by Vladimír Smutný, we are witness to the myriad shades of grey that are war brings out in mankind. Not to belabor the point, but Smutný’s work in this film is quite simply perfect. There isn’t a single bad shot that exists in The Painted Bird from the first frame to the last. It is through this exquisite beauty that the realities of conflict are heightened. We see the good, the profane, the savage, and the sacred on an intimate scale.
“…Smutný’s work in this film is quite simply perfect.”
The production values, too are crisp, and believable—from the various tonal shifts in sound, intimate and expansive, to the variety of costumes by Helena Rovna that different regions and classes.
Final praise, however, must be given to Václav Marhoul for adapting this important work and to newcomer Kotlar, who is tasked with carrying the nearly three-hour film. What could have easily become an exhausting endeavour is guided deftly away from the precipice to become a celebration of determination. Hardly any of The Painted Bird is what you would call pleasant. It is often a difficult watch at times but is a consistently engaging one. As the Czech Republic’s submission for Best Foreign Language film, I easily expect a nomination to materialize for this solid piece of work. As stated in the beginning, the images will stay with the audience long after leaving the cinema. Perhaps now, in these times, when the threat of war is bandied about like a trite threat, this is a good thing.
"…the most grueling and rewarding movies to arrive in years."