The Painted Bird’s shocking violence speaks more truth about wartime Europe than other films

The argument about violence comes down to whether it is strictly necessary for the plot, says Mary Dejevsky. In the case of this film, it probably was

Thursday 17 September 2020 14:53
The Painted Bird has sparked controversy over its graphic violence
The Painted Bird has sparked controversy over its graphic violence

Just released, as the cinemas start to open up, is a film that I don’t know whether to recommend or not. It certainly comes as a searing reminder of everything, good and bad, that we have been missing in all the months that the cinemas were closed. It has the simple title, The Painted Bird, and is based on a book by the Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski. It is beautifully, languorously, shot, and there is very little dialogue, so no one needs to worry that this is a “foreign” film, by the Czech director Vaclav Mohoul. 

What you probably do need to know before you take your seat (as I, foolishly, did not) is that it lasts more than three hours. But it is not the length that makes me hesitate with the recommendations. You don’t really notice the time passing by. My main reservation is that it is not for the faint-hearted. Reviews speak of “savagery”, “brutal violence”, a gruesome and unrelenting cinematic experience”, “a three-hour tour of hell”. In the months between its debut at last year’s film festivals and its much-delayed general release (because of the coronavirus restrictions), The Painted Bird gained a certain notoriety.

At the Venice Film Festival a year ago, and then in Toronto and London, some critics (not a huge proportion, but enough to be remarked upon) walked out. Either they could not stomach some of the more horrific scenes, or perhaps they felt that violence and depravity of the order depicted here had no place in a film made for general release, or at all. There was also an ethical dimension, with Mohoul challenged to explain what measures were taken to protect the then nine-year old Petr Kotlar, who plays the central role. The Painted Bird soon became one exhibit in a wider controversy about what some see as a growing trend towards “extreme” cinema, with directors chasing ever more shocking effects.

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