Petr Kotlár as “A Boy” in the new adaptation of Jerzy Kozinski’s novel “The Painted Bird.” (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Václav Marhoul’s take on the Holocaust story doesn’t let the viewer get close enough to its lead character.  

In Václav Marhoul’s new, fairly literal and so “faithful” adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s strongly subjective The Painted Bird, things are mostly what they seem. Closely following an unnamed, orphaned refugee boy, described on the page as a “Gypsy or Jewish stray,” the child (“olive-skinned, dark-haired and black-eyed” per Kosinski) trudges between brief, fragile harbors amid the remote villages and elder forests of Eastern Europe under fascism, accepting any hospitality he can find. Over the film’s near-three hours, he’s received both well and poorly in what are structured as discrete episodes, with true security and stability proving elusive throughout its duration. The Holocaust is felt as a constant presence — if a largely atmospheric, generally destabilizing one rather than an immediate threat to living. 

Though Marhoul follows the boy dutifully (played with stoic, rather grown-up perseverance by Petr Kotlar — whose rounded, doughy form at what looks to be age eight or ten counters his hard-set jaw in terms of how we read him), The Painted Bird’s screen adaptation never quite lives inside its lead character’s mind. It could be the nature of streaming this at home, but for this viewer the experience of watching ran parallel to the character’s experience, never overlapping or intersecting. The film is stately, attractive, convincing and precise — successfully conjuring a sense of place and tone that’s very rarely punctured. At the same time, many of its gestures feel received, or non-immediate — we’ll call it the burden of prestige, the influence of film-historical bigwigs like Tarkovsky and Bergman. 

This remove leaves viewers aligned with the story’s concerns and the character’s experiences but not exactly “in” them. The procession of hardship and violence onscreen seem to stir in The Painted Bird’s director something like a flinch, the story’s action modulated by a safe, too-tasteful distance for an adaptation of an offbeat, transgressive, and perverse novel. Bestiality, eye-gouging and dimly ironized bloodshed all feature, and Marhoul’s team shoots them cooly, cutting swiftly over dead-on depictions of violence in a “straight,” unglamorous way that has something of The Irishman’s combination of direct presentation and repressed, efficient remove.  

Unlike the film, Kosinski’s lens feels acutely personal, leavened by a kind of insatiable curiosity that’s as admirable (if more common) a trait in children as it is in writers or adults. Though the novel can read as a kind of morbid picaresque, the fact is that, at six, its protagonist has little outside context and few other points of comparison to posit against what we as adult readers know to be an experience of deprivation. Knowing little else, he’s actually positioned in some peculiar way to cope with hardship better relative to adults. 

It’s this juxtaposition — of the boy’s viewpoint with the adult reader’s more jaded, knowledgeable own — that makes for an immersive, welcoming book in spite of a grim topic. Elevating its proceedings by showing a more intimate, less documentary perspective than we’re used to, it’s a vision of Europe under fascism delivered through a personal lens. Though accomplished and often beautiful, Marhoul’s adaptation is missing instrumental for being mostly unrefracted — well-told though it may be, it’s ultimately a story we’ve already seen. 

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