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The Painted Bird: Torture Porn for Intellectuals (Review)

The Painted Bird: Torture Porn for Intellectuals (Review)

Bernard Ozarowski

The Painted Bird is a reprehensible picture that fetishizes misery in the service of little more than emotional manipulation.



The Painted Bird is one of the most beautiful movies you will see all year. Each shot over the film’s nearly three hour run time is a mini work of art. Director Václav Marhoul (Tobruk) and cinematographer Vladimir Smutny (Kolja) utilize a gorgeous black & white color scheme that gives the movie a beautiful array of stark contrast shots. Marhoul’s camera movements are restrained and thoughtful; the technical virtuosity of his composition remains impressive throughout.

All of this beauty is enlisted in the service of an epic, episodic Holocaust story spanning the early years of World War II through the war’s conclusion. Adapted from the novel of the same name, The Painted Bird follows a young boy who, driven by tragic circumstances, is forced to travel through Eastern Europe through the ravages of the Nazi-Soviet side of the conflict. As the structure dictates, the film is loaded with numerous characters who must make in an impact in a short time. Between Udo Kier (Iron Sky and about a hundred other cult classics), Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting), Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) and Harvey Keitel (Bad Lieutenant), among others, Marhoul has brought together an impressive lineup of character actors.

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Stellan Skarsgård and Petr Kotlár in The Painted Bird (Eureka Entertainment/IFC Films)

As the title of this review may have spoiled, I have buried the lede. All of that good is in the service of a movie that is quite simply reprehensible.  I am the furthest thing from puritanical in my moviegoing tastes, but Marhoul’s film seems to take vicious glee in the anarchistic misery the film’s protagonist must endure. By way of example, the film’s first half hour sees (graphic descriptions ahead):

  1. The Boy beaten and his pet ermine burned to death before his eyes;
  2. the death of his caretaker aunt;
  3. the accidental arson of his aunt’s home when the Boy drops a lantern upon discovering the body;
  4. the townsfolk tie the boy in a sack, beat him viciously with sticks, and plan to drown him in the town well;
  5. a town mystic buys him as a servant then buries him alive with only his head left out of the ground and leaves him to be pecked by crows.

At that point, two and a half hours of sadism remain. And we have barely seen the tip of the iceberg of the film’s brutality. From multiple forms of pedophilic rape to an utterly savage hanging, from the gunshot execution of a crying baby to bestiality with a goat, there is simply no act that is too far for Marhoul.

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Petr Kotlár in The Painted Bird (Eureka Entertainment/IFC Films)

I think it is important to take a step back here – the Holocaust and the chaotic dissolution of society in Eastern Europe during the Second World War led to near countless tragedies. Humanity dissolved with jarring frequency into something far beyond mere barbarism. Even leaving aside the patent absurdity of all of this horror happening to one child during one Eastern European odyssey, it is Marhoul’s ghoulish titillating fascination with violence that pushes the movie into a place of pure sadism and eliminates the pretense of serious artistry. By way of example, one scene sees a character’s eyes brutally removed with a spoon. Marhoul’s response to this act – after the perpetrator drags his wife into another room to beat her bloody with his belt – is to lock his camera to the ruined eyeballs on the ground for an extended shot while a cat licks the viscous and blood off the eye stem.

See Also

I was thinking that I would make a joke about how The Painted Bird is what it would look like if Hostel’s Eli Roth directed a Holocaust movie, but then I remembered that Roth knows what satire is.  There could certainly be a place for a movie with this sort of over-the-top savagery, but here brutality is presented with a sheen of high art and sold to the intelligentsia.  This movie is angling for the Oscars, not the grindhouse. The film’s prestige veneer renders it little more than a loathsome exercise in torture porn with nothing of value to say about the Holocaust, World War II, or human suffering.


The Painted Bird: Trailer (IFC Films)

The Painted Bird will be available in cinemas and on Demand on July 17th.


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