Czech director Vaclav Marhoul’s adaptation of Jerzy Kosinsky’s controversial novel The Painted Bird is one of 10 films that was recently shortlisted for the International Feature Oscar. The film took more than a decade to bring to the screen and debuted in competition in Venice where it won the Cinema for UNICEF Award. IFC picked up U.S. rights for The Painted Bird out of its TIFF premiere and will open the movie next year.
An evocation of wild, primitive Eastern Europe at the bloody close of World War II, the story follows the journey of ‘The Boy,’ who is entrusted by his persecuted parents to an elderly foster mother. The old woman soon dies and The Boy is on his own, wandering through the countryside, from village to farmhouse. As he struggles for survival, he suffers extraordinary brutality meted out by ignorant, superstitious peasants and witnesses the terrifying violence of the ruthless soldiers.
While Marhoul never puts the violence front and center, calling it “decent” violence, he tells me that after spending time in Los Angeles, screening the movie on the campaign trail, he heard from many people, “Your film is a masterpiece, but it’s too real.” That led him to believe “it is absolutely impossible, we are never going to be shortlisted.” To his surprise on the evening of December 16, he took his phone out after attending a theater performance and found about 50 text messages relating the news.
The Painted Bird was a passion project for the filmmaker whose other works have included Tobruck and Smart Philip. “I remember when I read it, I was so touched and it just kept coming at me like a boomerang all the time.” From the page, says Marhoul, “The pictures appeared to me. Every sentence was like a picture shot and that doesn’t happen every time.”
Still, “people are thinking that I am crazy to read this book as a message of humanity, good and hope. People think it’s about violence and brutality, but for me that’s not the story. It’s not the picture but the frame. The story is telling us a message about humankind.” He likens it to today’s world saying, “From the beginning for me this book was timeless and universal. It’s not important that it is set during World War II. It’s not important that the main character is a Jewish boy. This was never a war time drama or a Holocaust drama.”
The boy in question is Petr Kotlar, a non-professional actor whom Marhoul found by chance. Visiting a medieval town in his home country, Marhoul says he “met him on the street by accident and felt it was him. He was my first choice and from that moment on I didn’t try to find another actor. My ace was my heart and my instinct.” Kotlar was nevertheless “so professional and so prepared. He is so open and is absolutely not interested in the fact he will be a big star in Czech Republic. He would like to play football,” laughs Marhoul.
The film employs what the director calls Slavic Esperanto which Marhoul fell upon also by accident. “Jerzy never said where the story was going on, just somewhere in Eastern Europe. So it was a technical problem for me. But Jerzy didn’t tell the truth. He said this was an autobiography and that wasn’t true… I just really didn’t wish that any nation should be associated with the story. I had to find a solution and just typed Slavic Esperanto into Google. What came up was Interslavic, an invented language that maybe about 40 people speak. I found the guy who created the language and he wrote the dialogue.”