Causing an enormous stir of walkouts in major festivals such as Venice and TIFF, Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird has been discussed and contemplated on since the beginning of the 2019 awards season. It’s a controversial flick, as expected with the film’s near three hour run-time. Some have called Marhoul’s film a vivacious masterwork of exploitation, while others have deemed the film’s violence and subject matter as needlessly senseless and pretentious. For most people, it’s nearly impossible to reach a middle ground with a film like The Painted Bird. The pure vulgarity of the images featured throughout the film’s sluggish run-time, is primarily a major turnoff.

Is the film drastically overdone, where the majority of any real emotional and thematic weight is reliant on unnecessary brutality? Yes. Is the film’s disturbing imagery justified at the end for the day? Most definitely. The Painted Bird is a critique on desensitization; how one’s experience during a time of hysteria can alter one’s memory bank into a world of violence and decay. From the perspective of a young Polish boy, the film’s proactive bloodshed starts horrifically, and slowly escalates with each passing scene. Starting with animal cruelty, and ending off with cold blooded murder, the audience experiences these awful moments of tragedy, as we the viewer also slowly descend into a form of desensitization. By a certain point, it’s impossible to be really shocked by anything, where the film literally shows the worst of what humanity can be. It isn’t until the very end where we see a glimmer of a hope, a little bit light in the cold barren darkness. 

The most notable technique featured in The Painted Bird is the usage of silence. The lack of sound is deafening, where the sound design relies on immersive natural sound effects (wind, grass, fire, etc.) as it’s main source to immerse the audience into this world of disparity. In fact, one could argue that the effect is almost a little too immersive, where the brutal usage of it’s binaural soundscape is eerily nauseating. Marhoul’s intent is justified however, in the film’s exploitative nature. Without the ripe sound design, the film’s grotesque visuals wouldn’t have successfully engraved into the viewer’s memory. Without the usage of the film’s sound effects, the purpose of the viewer being desensitized to senseless violence would no longer come into full effect; ultimately ruining the point of the film’s key thematic core. 

The Painted Birds shows the worst of what humanity can be, with elongated sequences of rape, murder, domestic abuse, whipping, drowning, and eyeball gouging. It’s one-note and frequently repetitive, but that’s entirely the point.  It doesn’t always matter if a film is poorly edited or timed, or if the practical effects are insanely creative. What matters most is what the audience can ultimately get from a film. Cinema is a portal to another dimension. In the case of Marhoul’s direction, he seeks solace in humanitarian disorder; the downfall of humanity itself through atrocities. In a world of covid-19 and World War Three hysteria, The Painted Bird is not a far reality from our own current plain of existence.

The Painted Bird screened at this year’s Glasgow International Film Festival in the Window on the World program. Image for Window on the World

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