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  Painted Bird, The Infinite Cruelty
Year: 2019
Director: Vaclav Marhoul
Stars: Petr Kotlar, Nina Sunevic, Alla Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Ostap Dziadek, Zdenek Pecha, Michaela Dolezalova, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarova, Milan Simacek, Martin Nahalka, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper
Genre: Horror, Drama, WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Joska (Petr Kotlar) is a little boy who lives in Eastern Europe just as the Second World War is beginning but finds his fellow locals even more of a danger than the Nazis. His parents having abandoned him, he lives with an elderly aunt, and she tells him he only has himself to blame when the kids of the area single him out whenever he ventures away from the house - just today they beat him up and even worse, grabbed his pet ferret and set it on fire, simply out of their ghastly amusement. But Joska will find life growing ever harder as the war progresses, for his aunt dies, leaving him without anyone to look after him...

The Painted Bird was the most controversial novel, his debut, by Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski, an autobiographical account of his early years struggling to survive alone in war torn Poland where his fellow countrymen and women were more of a threat than any of the soldiers he encountered. Its violence and disturbing content rivalled even William Burroughs for its attention-grabbing, and in his native land it saw him lambasted and eventually, the book was banned. But it was not as simple as it appeared, for after some research it was discovered the reminiscences were almost entirely invented: Kosinski had made them all up as a kind of gimmick.

But more than that, and not for the last time, Kosinski had actually lifted his work from somebody else (Being There, made into a film starring Peter Sellers, was plagiarised as well), and that somebody was his friend and fellow expatriate Pole Roman Polanski, who really had been left to fend for himself across a superstitious and Jew-despising landscape when he was a very young child, his family having been murdered by the Nazis. Did it matter that the element of authenticity rested with a different talent? For many, it did, and Kosinski's star has fallen in the subsequent years; it didn't help that Polanski himself blotted his copybook as well, to put it mildly.

There had been interest in adapting the novel down the decades, largely when Kosinski was still alive, though he did not believe anyone could really do it justice and generally refused to hand over the rights even to top directors. Czech actor-director Vaclav Marhoul had his heart set on it, and perhaps it was indicative of the dwindling interest in the source that he was far from an A-lister, so those rights were allowed to pass to him, if nothing else it revived interest in Kosinski's canon. Once released, it proved a love it or hate it prospect for everyone who caught it, thanks to the dreadful abuses doled out to the protagonist - including beatings, thrown in a cess pit and rape by Julian Sands - or many of the other folks, most of them vile (and all speaking a nonspecific language), he met along his journey to prevail in horrific conditions.

Marhoul made a few changes from the text, most obviously removing the narrator's voice: the boy remained silent, as in the book, but we were not longer privy to his thoughts, leaving him something of a blank, a character who reacts and is not the agent of his own destiny until the cruelty gets to him in the latter stages of a long three hours running time and he starts turning the violence on others. As a story, it was all very "this happened, then this happened, then something else happened", one damn thing after another in its structure, each episode named after a character Joska meets and featuring at least one, often more, acts of savagery and brutality against their fellow man, woman or child. Its deliberate unpleasantness was true to the origins, but the problem was you did not learn anything, as if you were unaware, or unwilling to contemplate, just how bad people can behave to one another without even troubling themselves with justification, then there was a lack of surprise that undercut its horror movie setpieces. Occasional famous faces cropped up, but what was transgressive on the page was monotonous on film.

[Eureka's pristine Blu-ray has a feature-length making of documentary, a booklet and a stills gallery as extras.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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