Petr Kotlar in “The Painted Bird.” IFC Films

When “The Painted Bird” was first shown at film festivals in the fall – way back when people could still sit in movie theaters – there were mass walkouts reported at Venice and Toronto, by viewers who were horrified by some of the action depicted in this black-and-white Holocaust drama (more or less faithfully adapted by Czech writer-director Vaclav Marhoul from Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel).

Horrified I can understand. But surprised? Had none of the those people who walked out read – or even heard about – the book, which is included on Time magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923?

I can hardly shake the memory – still indelible decades after I read it – of the book’s young protagonist, a Jewish boy who wanders from village to village in unnamed parts of Eastern Europe during World War II, buried up to his neck by a medicine woman, and left outside to be pecked bloody by crows.

That is hardly the worst thing that happens to the main character in this harrowing, gorgeous – yes, slightly sadistic – and ultimately deeply moving film. At nearly three hours long, and told with the book’s peripatetic structure, moving from nightmare to nightmare, “The Painted Bird” is not for the faint of heart.

Told in chapters titled with the names of the people he meets – “Marta,” “Olga,” “Lekh and Ludmila,” “Hans” – the film tells the story of Joska (Petr Kotlar), whose name we only learn at the end of the movie, when he is reunited with his father. As the tale gets underway, Dad and Mom appear to have gone into hiding, leaving their son to be raised by an elderly woman (Nina Shunevych). That doesn’t last long. Joska finds her dead one day, and accidentally sets fire to her house, and her.

On to the next nightmare.

There’s no point in itemizing all the various atrocities witnessed and/or suffered by Joska, and, presumably, his parents. Suffice it to say that a Nazi soldier (Stellan Skarsgard) is the nicest person he meets. Taken in at one point by a Catholic priest (Harvey Keitel), Joska is “given” to a moonshiner (Julian Sands) in a form of indentured servitude. (The man also tortures him.) Later, he is taken under the wing of a Red Army sharpshooter (Barry Pepper), who teaches Joska the value of blind, violent vengeance – a “virtue” that the boy later practices in one of the film’s more coldblooded episodes. (Other than that handful of actors with recognizable names, the film’s cast is largely Eastern European.)

The mistreatment that Joska endures isn’t just physical, but psychological: a form of child abuse like no other you will see on film. Eventually, Joska becomes mute, but you may hardly notice. “Bird” is largely told without dialogue. The backdrop of a world war is also relegated to the periphery for much of the story. A full hour goes by before we even see our first Nazis: soldiers shooting at Jews who have managed to escape from a moving train.

It’s worth noting a controversy associated with the novel, which was originally billed as semiautobiographical – a claim that Kosinski (“Being There”) backed away from after the book’s publication. Shot in richly toned black-and-white, on 35 millimeter film, there is nothing documentary-like about “The Painted Bird.” Rather, it has the surreal atmosphere of allegory. The film’s title refers to Joska’s time with a bird-catcher (Lech Dyblik), who releases a bird – whose wings he has painted – into the wild, only to watch, in perverse amusement, as the other members of its flock tear it to shreds, no longer able to recognize it.

That unrecognizability is the central theme of a film that ends with a shot of a man’s forearm tattooed with a number. It’s a story of how war dehumanizes everyone – both its perpetrators and its victims – reducing us all to monsters whose names, ironically, don’t matter.

Stellan Skarsgard, left, and Petr Kotlar in “The Painted Bird.” IFC Films


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