The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes