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‘The Painted Bird’: Intense war story tough to stomach but rewarding to see

A wandering boy endures unbearable cruelty from a variety of strangers in searing adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel.

Petr Kotlár plays an Eastern European boy left to wander from town to town during World War II in “The Painted Bird.”
IFC Films

We’ve often talked about the “repeatability” of certain beloved films — favorites we can watch over and over again, e.g., “Goodfellas,” “Caddyshack,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Pulp Fiction,” etc., etc.

Other movies make for unforgettable viewing, but it’s such an intense, harrowing, horrific, searing experience, one wishes never to repeat it.

“The Painted Bird” falls into the latter category.

I remember reading Jerzy Kosinski’s classic and controversial novel “The Painted Bird” at a young age and being equal parts riveted and terrified by the indelibly hellish depiction of a Jewish boy wandering about Eastern Europe during World War II and witnessing (and often enduring) an obscene litany of violence, sexual abuse and deviancy at the hands of cruel villagers he encounters along the way — many of them human monsters who treat the child far worse than one should treat even one’s worst enemy. The Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul has done an astonishing job of adapting Kosinski’s novel in all its brutality (and its moments of humanity), lensing the story through timeless, dream- and nightmare-like 35mm monochrome and delivering a near-masterpiece epic that will leave you exhausted after its 169-minute running time — but grateful you’ve seen one of the most memorable movies of the year.

Even if you’ll most likely be fine with never seeing it again.

“The Painted Bird” is a bloody and bruised slice of life in an unnamed Eastern European country near the end of World War II, where German and Russian soldiers have the thousand-yard stares of men who have seen far too much killing to ever return to normalcy, where village peasants who might once have been friendly, decent people have been warped by the chaos of war — and where an unnamed child we’ll call the Boy (non-professional Petr Kotlár, amazingly authentic and empathetic) is left on his own and drifts from town to town, depending on the kindness of strangers and instead finding himself feeling the wrath of heartless, soulless, wicked adults.

The film is divided into nine chapters, each named after various characters the Boy encounters along the way as he travels the deceptively beautiful and quiet countryside. (With the exception of a handful of scenes involving German and Russian troops, the war in “The Painted Bird” is often off screen or represented by a stark image such as a single Luftwaffe aircraft crossing a clear sky.) When we meet the Boy, his parents, fearing for his safety, have left him in the care of an old peasant woman (Nina Shunevych), who provides food and shelter for the Boy but also puts him to work all day, every day. When the old lady dies, the Boy heads out into the vast unknown, with the vague notion of finding his parents, though he has no idea where they are or even if they’re alive.

A German soldier (Stellan Skarsgard, left) is one of the few decent people encountered by the boy (Petr Kotlár) in “The Painted Bird.”
IFC Films

Religious themes abound in “The Painted Bird,” with so-called true believers often exposed as fearful and ignorant. A bunch of fearful and ignorant Catholic peasants believe the Boy might be the devil. A shaman (Alla Sokolova) declares the Boy is a vampire and takes possession of him as a slave. In another town, a well-meaning Catholic priest (Harvey Keitel) rescues the Boy from a savage beating and teaches him to become an altar boy — but then hands him over to a clearly deranged and dangerous parishioner (Julian Sands), who repeatedly rapes and beats the boy. (The priest isn’t aware of the abuse, though he comes to suspect something — but he should have known better than to blithely turn the child over to this obvious creep.)

With all he suffers (and we’ve not come close to describing all the horrors), the Boy never gives up, never stops moving, never stops looking for his parents or at least a place where he can rest and eat and not be abused. Occasionally he does come across a human being with a soul — and it’s usually someone in uniform. Stellan Skarsgard is a weary, veteran German soldier who volunteers to take the Boy into the woods and shoot him (for the “crime” of being Jewish) — but he fires his rifle into the air and tells the boy to run for his life. Barry Pepper is a Russian sniper (shades of Pepper’s role as an American sniper in “Saving Private Ryan”) who protects the boy for as long as he can, and then sends him off with a parting gift: a gun. It’s maybe the kindest and most positive and helpful thing anyone does for the Boy through the entirety of his unbearably painful journey.