(Release Info London schedule; March 25th, 2020, Curzon Bloomsbury, The Brunswick Centre, London WC1N 1AW, United Kingdom, 6:00 pm)
"The Painted Bird"
Based on Jerzy Kosiriski novel, "The Painted Bird" is a meticulous 35mm black and white evocation of wild, primitive 'Eastern Europe' at the bloody close of 'World War II'. The film follows the journey of 'The Boy' (Petr Kotlar), entrusted by his persecuted parents to an elderly foster mother (Claudia Vaseková). The old woman soon dies and 'The Boy' is on his own, wandering through the countryside, from village to village, farmhouse to farmhouse. As he struggles for survival, 'The Boy' suffers through extraordinary brutality meted out by the ignorant, superstitious peasants and he witnesses the terrifying violence of the efficient, ruthless soldiers, both 'Russian' and 'German'. In a defining scene, one of the peasants shows 'The Boy' the flight of a captive bird, whom the man has painted and then released back into it's own flock. The bird is immediately ripped apart because it's different from it's fellows. That lesson reinforces all 'The Boy' already knows and will soon know better; difference is fatal. But there are rare moments of compassion. Hans (Stellan Skarsgărd), a 'German' soldier spares 'The Boy, a priest (Harvey Keitel) intervenes on his behalf, and finally 'The Boy' becomes the protégé of Garbos (Julien Sands), a 'Russian' sniper, who's kind to the child, but ruthless with the enemy. And there are signs of love. 'The Boy' is seduced by Ludmilla (Jitka Cvanrarnova), an older girl, finally re-discovering the comfort of intimacy, only to realize that he has been used. When he's miraculously reunited with his weakened father Nicodemus (Petr Varnek) at the end of the war, 'The Boy' is cold and impenetrable, hardened by his ordeal. Yet we can still glimpse something of the old, sensitive 'Boy' (Antonin Masek) behind the eyes of the new. Perhaps there's hope.
"The Painted Bird" is a meditation on evil, but also, the opposite, goodness, empathy, love. In their absence, we inevitably turn to those values. When we do have glimpses of good and love in "The Painted Bird", we appreciate their essence and we yearn for more. This is the positive message of the movie, the human longing for good. When 'The Boy' cries: ‘I want to go home!’, we too want to go home, to a safe place of love'. Anything else seems absurd. And to preserve the sense of reality, we've a story order, so that the growth of the child actor mirrors the progression and growth of the central character. The black and white images, the framing, the pacing and the expansive setting of the countryside gives the viewers the emotional room to seriously reflect on the acts of violence that 'The Boy' sees and endures. In several of the most problematic scenes, the boy isn't there at all. The camera views the action in his place and conveys his subjective vision. The goal is to create a series of tableaux that, cumulatively, takes the protagonist on a journey to the very heart of the dark human soul. Each part of the series is a visual clue, a sort of lost fragment of a larger painting, a canvas that draws the protagonist irrevocably toward a final catharsis. It's intended as a kind of gradual peeling away of layers so that, by the end, the viewer has arrived at the very core of the central character, who has discovered a hard-won truth.
It’s the story’s spirit of the ballad, it's quiet urgency, the vivid internal world of the central character, 'The Boy', whose nature is beautiful despite the horror around him. It’s also the story of the historical and geographical setting, and the characters 'The Boy' encounters. It’s not always important that we love these characters or mourn their fate. What's important is that we see them and bear witness. Adults have their own pasts, which they're aware of, and at the same time they can imagine a future. But this is not true for a child. The past is an unbelievably shallow body of water, where it’s not possible to swim. And the future cannot be imagined at all. A child, basically, can only think a few days ahead. What will happen in a month is unknowable. Several clinical psychologists have concluded that children, paradoxically, accept difficult reality far more easily than adults do. They take it as it's. And of course, this is the quality that helps children survive by allowing them to believe that the terrible things around them are normal. Something like this happens to the main character, 'The Boy', who's saved but perhaps irrevocably damaged by the very resilience that allowed him to tolerate horror. 'The Boy' is a kind of symbol, a representative of all those hundreds of thousands of children who lived through the war, wandered through ruined Europe, lost their parents and perhaps never saw them again. And it’s just the same now across the entire world wherever military conflict is going on.
After reading the original novel 'The Painted Bird', we're shocked by the descriptions of violence and brutality. The conception of violence can be disturbing, but it's not one-dimensional, or even two-dimensional. Violence unveils and frames the essence of humanity. The book was seen as autobiographical, but then, Kosinski was accused of having invented most of the situations, of writing a work of fiction and imagining horrifying situations that he himself never experienced. Kosinski during his lifetime made a mistake when he said that it was his personal autobiography. But to understand why he did it, it's necessary to know his life, his spirit and his thoughts. Whether the book reflects his own experiences or not is completely irrelevant, because the essential element of a work of art is not it's biographical truth, but it's truthfulness. Even movies that make the valid claim 'based on a true story' are not reality. Without imagination, whether deliberate or not, art is impossible. At the end, every Creator arrives at some degree of aestheticization. It's not a literary fiction; the book simply relates the dreadful, deadening facts and the knowledge that all of this really happened, and will happen again. No artwork can deliver such raw reality, that's not it's purpose and it will always fail. But art is capable of treating these stories empathetically, and above all truthfully.
A film, unlike a novel, is based not on words but on images and no adaption to film can match what been created in the imagination of the reader. The camera is absolutely uncompromising; it offers the viewpoint of the director and no one else. An adaptation can only be successful if the aesthetic concept of the film, the narrative style and the message of the story re-create for the viewer the emotional and intellectual impact the book would have on it's readers. The film resolutely avoids pathos, and eliminates well-worn clichés, exploitative melodrama and music that attempts to evoke artificial feelings. Absolute quiet can be as stark and more emotionally charged than any music. The 'Cinemascope' is a richly emotive format. No other format can capture, with such accuracy and force, both the beauty and the cruelty playing out on screen. The quality of the digital image still lags behind the tactile properties of the classical negative, most especially because the digital image loses it's rawness. Black-and-white captures the essential truthfulness and urgency of the images. The negative is more authentic, especially for something like “The Painted Bird”, which is in black and white precisely to reinforce the basic narrative line. Filming it in colour would have been a catastrophe. It would have looked entirely unconvincing, fake, commercial.
The locality is describes only as a place somewhere in 'Eastern Europe', where a special dialect is spoken. The film is a mixture of all 'Slavic' languages, while 'German' and 'Russian' soldiers speak in their native tongues. The style of storytelling is not verbal, it’s cinematic. There's no interior monologue or explanatory narration. The tempo of the film is set by the pace of a flowing river, unpredictable and continually shifting in it's rhythms. This directorial approach forces the viewer to experience the events unfolding on screen, to essentially live both moments of great emotional tension and moments of resolution. We've to find the key to the door named 'Kosinski’s The Painted Bird'. The film fully awares the controversies surrounding both the authorship and the relationship between Kozinski’s novel and the plot of “The Painted Bird”.
"The Painted Bird" wants the audience and the novel’s readers to come away with the same questions. Are psychologists right when they say we will turn towards evil if there's no danger of punishment? Is evil inevitable within a struggle for life itself? What circumstances allow us to betray our principles? The story asks us many unpleasant questions and to struggle, alone, for the answers. We're left in doubt about the purpose and fate of 'Homo Sapiens' as a species and these doubts hurt so much that we've to hang on to anything positive. It's not a war film, nor even a 'Holocaust' film. It's a story of the struggle between darkness and light, good and evil, true faith and organized religion and many other opposites. And this is precisely where the magic lies; only in darkness can we see light. Through confronting evil, we arrive at the unshakeable conviction that good and love must necessarily exist. At least, through the horror is hope.