VENICE, Italy, (Reuters) - Set somewhere in rural eastern Europe towards the end of World War Two, “The Painted Bird” is a sombre tale of a young boy trying to survive a harsh wilderness and the cruelty of strangers, and is described by one of its stars as “timeless”.
Based on a 1965 novel by Polish-born novelist Jerzy Kosinski, the 35mm black and white film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Tuesday, depicts a bleak world where being different is dangerous.
Sent by his persecuted parents to stay with an elderly woman in the desolate countryside of an unnamed country, the lead character, known simply as The Boy, soon finds himself alone when she dies and he sets off on foot to find safety elsewhere.
He wanders from village to village, where he meets and stays with different people - some of them superstitious and cruel, others accommodating and kind.
The Boy, played by Petr Kotlar, endures brutal beatings and abuse and witnesses horrific violence carried out by civilians and soldiers - a man having his eye gouged out, a village ransacked, people shot and a woman kicked in the genitals.
“The questions about humankind, about God, what is the evil, what is the good in all of us, what does it mean that the light is visible only in the dark? That’s the principle of this movie,” director Vaclav Marhoul told Reuters in an interview.
The film, which is just short of three hours long, features very little dialogue. Marhoul, who also wrote the script, said he specifically chose a kind of Slavic Esperanto, a created language, for the villagers’ dialogue.
“I didn’t want the villagers (speaking) Ukrainian or Polish or Russian or something like that because those people (the villagers in the film) are really bad people,” he said.
“I didn’t want some nation to be associated with that.”
In one key scene, one of The Boy’s hosts paints the wings of one of his captive birds and releases it into its flock, only for it to be attacked by the others.
“(The film) depicts Europe at a very dark time, but it’s a dark time that is not specific to that time, that is sort of existing today all over the world in many places,” actor Stellan Skarsgard said.
The “Mamma Mia!” and “Thor” actor plays a Nazi officer in the film, who is also one of the few to feel sympathy for The Boy. The latter also finds kindness in a priest and feels love for a young woman.
“During the most horrible times there are moments of compassion and we as humans, we can be monsters of brutality but we can also be very compassionate and we all have it all in us, if you’re not a psychopath,” Skarsgard said.
“So we’re all capable of everything.”
The movie, nearly 11 years in the making, is one of 21 films competing for the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival.
“It happens to be set in the period just at the end of the Second World War, but it could be mediaeval, it could be 50 years in the future,” said actor Julian Sands, who plays one of the crueler people The Boy meets.
“It has more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ than a Holocaust movie, it has more in common with Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ than a specific Second world War historical account. It’s timeless.”
Reporting by Helena Williams and Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Gareth Jones