The Painted Bird: first Czech film to vie for a Golden Lion at Venice in a quarter century

'The Painted Bird', photo: Czech Television

For the first time in 25 years, a majority Czech feature is in the main competition at Venice, one the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Director Václav Marhoul is vying for a Golden Lion award with his adaptation of The Painted Bird, a controversial novel set during WWII about a boy subject to all manner of abuse by eastern European villagers.

'The Painted Bird',  photo: Czech Television

Václav Marhoul has taken a number of risks in his interpretation of the 1965 novel by Polish-born writer Jerzy Kosiński, in which a dark-eyed boy, “perhaps Jewish, perhaps Gypsy” is tormented and exploited – physically, emotionally and sexually – by ignorant and superstitious peasants.

But Marhoul says his adaptation of The Painted Bird is neither a war movie nor a Holocaust film but a story about “otherness”. And as such, it could have worked in any number of settings – even as “a sci-fi about a boy from Venus on Mars”.

'The Painted Bird',  photo: Czech Television
He began working on the script in 2010. He had a hard time selling his concept – his characters speak in an invented Slavic dialect, as would-be producers were insistent it be in English. Marhoul told Czech Radio he also wanted to shoot in black and white, in Cinemascope format and 35 mm negative film. Having a three-hour run time was also a risk.

“And it’s a heavy theme! So, yes, such things can be a ‘handicap’ in attracting audiences. Absolutely. My film is not for everyone. It’s not for people who – how shall I put it? – people who don’t like to think.

“You could have, a 90-minute colour film, full of action scenes, cloying music, with someone always talking or shooting, lots of explosions. You’d be horribly bored. It would be stupid.”

“If a film has the right rhythm and tempo, it flows like a river. Sometimes fiercely, sometimes lazily; it can be still, meander and then become a waterfall. If you change the tempo, you hold the viewers’ attention. It could be 90 minutes or four hours.”

'Ecstasy',  photo: Czech National Film Archive
In the end, Marhoul found backers for his vision, and lined up a stellar cast – among them Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands and Udo Kier, while casting a Czech non-actor, Petr Kolář, as the boy. The director also travelled for over three years through Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to find suitable locations.

Whether or not The Painted Bird wins the Golden Lion at Venice, Marhoul’s thoughtful meditation on good and evil has helped bring the country’s proud filmmaking tradition into the spotlight. So too has a digitally restored print of Gustav Machatý’s sensation Ecstasy, which introduced the world to Hedy Lamar, in all her glory, just as God made her.

Ecstasy – the first commercial film to portray sexual intercourse and the female orgasm – provoked a scandal at Venice in 1934. This year, it was selected as the festival’s pre-opening event.