Recently I saw what will most likely be my favourite film of the past year and foreseeable future, especially in light of the pandemic: The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul, 2019), from the Czech Republic. I made a Facebook post urging those who would listen to see it, emphasising its ties to Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985), another great film. My friend Alci Rengifo, a film critic who wrote an insightful review of The Painted Bird 1, referred me to an article in Variety with the self-explanatory title: “Stop the Punishment! Why I Walked Out of ‘The Painted Bird’ (Column)”. In it Peter Debruge, Variety’s chief film critic, explains why he walked out of the film and vehemently steers his readers away from it. His main argument is that The Painted Bird revels in “gratuitous displays of cruelty” and “amounts to an episodic collection of such vignettes, each one more horrible than the last, presumably adding up to an indictment of all that is awful about human nature”. 2 Come again? I am no stranger to people having different responses to a film, as that is part of the pleasure of the cinematic experience, but Debruge’s categorical stance brought to mind, of all things, a Christian axiom: “Sin is not where people are weak but trying, but where people are strong and not bothering.” 3

Debruge is not alone in his sin. In his rather short review of the film in The New York Times, another well-known critic, Ben Kenigsberg, sums it up by stating that compared to the novel, “this adaptation often seems to have little purpose beyond literal-minded visualisation”. 4 Such reductionist pronouncements do great disservice not only to the film itself but also to the array of talent that came together in the service of breathing new life into a poignant novel that for decades resisted celluloid representation – Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 The Painted Bird. Perhaps more alarmingly, potential audience members may be dissuaded from viewing a film that could be a true eye opener into the moral complexities of the human condition, the plight of abandoned children all over the world, and the grim reality of war far away from Hollywood’s Manichean depictions of “the goodies and the baddies”. While I agree with Debruge that every spectator should decide what their threshold of tolerance is, that decision should not be based on the biases of a critic who, by his own admission, “can have my revenge by writing a review that steers future audiences away from the movies that would be a waste of their time”. 5 At their best, critics edify us and help us see a movie in a new light, but they are not the gatekeepers of the Seventh Art. They can caution us about what lies on the other side, or even better, guide us through the door by providing necessary context. In any case, cinema is a journey that ought to be actively taken by the audience, making sure our eyes are wide open.

The role of a film instructor has certain similarities to the role of a critic. One of the prerogatives of screening a film in a university class is that you have a captive audience who, if things go your way, will be captivated by a work that might have otherwise eluded them. They experience new cultures and different value systems that can help expand their horizons and overcome stagnant preconceptions. I have been doing this on a constant basis for two decades now, and the upshot is that it has confirmed a long-held suspicion of mine: It’s not that people don’t inherently respond to “arthouse films”; the real issue is that they are not exposed to them often enough. In one of the classes I teach at Santa Monica College in Los Angeles, I show the aforementioned Come and See, and time and again the majority of students will say at the end of the semester that although it was difficult to watch, they appreciated that it changed their perception of what war is, and just as importantly, what it is not. Come and See can dissuade people from misdirecting their patriotism into naively joining the army, as so many did in the U.S. after 11 September 2001, without realising that being in a war is closer to that particular Soviet film than, for instance, what Ben Affleck goes through in Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001). If you still join the army after watching Come and See, at least you know what you might be getting into; and if you don’t, a hard-to-stomach film might have saved your life.

By drawing that thin, subjective, but nonetheless clear line between what is gratuitous or necessary, exploitative or serving the narrative, films like Come and See and The Painted Bird manage to get under our skin and make powerful and lasting impressions. The actual violence on screen is lesser in quantity and level of graphic detail than in wildly popular movies where violence is idealised to the point of fetishistic absurdity; eg: Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994), The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004), Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009). By comparison, in Come and See and The Painted Bird the intricate setup of a dramatic situation approached with judicious restraint in execution proves to be an incredibly effective combination. The profound aftermath is based as much on the psychological and emotional toll that the violence has on the characters in whom we are invested – boys forced into premature manhood – as on what is not shown but rather left to our imagination.

As a film director myself, I take issue with a critic not bothering to fully engage with a well-crafted, serious, affecting film so as to make sense of why it does what it does. Precisely because the material is challenging, one has to delve into the particulars to see what is distinctive about it, and even more so when there are analogous films that have contributed significantly to expanding the expressive possibilities of cinema, as with Come and See as a precursor of The Painted Bird. What I would like to do here is invite you to accompany me in taking a casuistic approach to Marhoul’s The Painted Bird in the hope of achieving two things: making a convincing case that this film is a lot more than “an indictment of all that is awful about human nature”; 6 and if you haven’t done so already, compelling you to watch the film until the end credits, knowing in advance that it is intense but that the violence – considerably more implied than graphic – serves a legitimate dramatic purpose and is neither gratuitous nor mindlessly glamourised.

The Painted Bird is structured as nine episodes, evocative of Dante’s nine circles of hell. The opening scene is a metaphor for the whole film. In the middle of the woods, a six-year old boy, Joska, whose name we won’t know until the last scene of the film, is running away from someone or something while protectively clutching a ferret. Out of nowhere, an older boy tackles him. Another boy snatches the ferret away from him, and with the aid of a third boy, the animal is doused with gasoline and set on fire. The first boy punches Joska, who loses his front teeth. He is left to watch the flaming ferret run around in circles until it stops, charred to death. The boys are gone; Joska stares, trying in vain to make sense of it all. The tone of this scene is down-to-earth. In the book Kosiński tells us that “the boys looked on, laughing and prodding it with a stick”. 7 There is no such thing in the film, nor is there an attempt to contextualise things. The boys are blurry, virtually faceless, and they vanish without a trace. The scene focuses on Joska witnessing, like us, the unexplainable and taking it at face value. The tone – or stimmung, as German Expressionist filmmakers called it – has been established, and the main expressive variables throughout the entire film will remain to be nonverbal communication, realistic sound design, the absence of music, the use of leitmotifs that give it internal cohesiveness, and deliberate camera placement imbued with almost nonstop kineticism that invariably conveys meaning and rhythmic flow. I couldn’t disagree more with Kenigsberg’s claim that “each black-and-white widescreen frame appears composed less for effect than for posterity”. 8 The cinematography in The Painted Bird, a rewarding collaboration between Marhoul and DP Vladimír Smutný, is embedded in the tradition of Eastern European cinema that has crossed borders (eg: the films of Andrzej Wajda, Emir Kusturica, Milos Forman, among others), and if anything, posterity would be the byproduct of its penetrating effect.

The formal beauty of the image allows us to see with our eyes wide open and take it all in, yet the story and character development still take precedence. In his review Rengifo mentioned rightly that “like Francisco Goya’s darkest paintings, (The Painted Bird) reminds us that great art can encompass all of the human experience, including its hardest-to-bear wounds”. 9 Apart from the humanistic content, however, Marhoul and his team do not resort to the hallucinogenic imagery of Goya’s dark paintings, nor do they settle for shock value (as do some acknowledged directors like Alejandro González in his 2015 The Revenant). On the contrary, the film is rooted in elegant realism and the infinite mystery of a world where beauty and horror exist side by side. There is a detached intimacy in The Painted Bird that evokes the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose unique images – eg: The Impact of War on Children 10 – capture injustice and suffering with poise, dignity, and unquestionable humanism and artistry. Far from morbidity, the allure of this kind of art is that we cannot look away, and in our fascination we will be moved to take action. No child should ever have to endure what Joska goes through in The Painted Bird, and yet his is a recurrent, ubiquitous, timeless story that through its specificity acquires a universal dimension.

Many aspects of The Painted Bird remind me of Come and See, but the Czech film is far from derivative. It comes across as a complementary piece, a variation on a theme that needed revisiting almost 35 years after its precursor appeared on the scene as the embodiment of glasnost and perestroika in Soviet cinema. Likewise, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, Come and See had reassessed the reasons that led threadbare armies of Soviet partisans to prevail over the Nazis.

After the ferret burning scene, Auntie Marta sees Joska returning home carrying its corpse. Her reaction: “It’s your fault.” Marhoul strikes me as the kind of director who would make sure that the first words spoken in the film bear significance and encapsulate one of the main themes of the film. Joska is often treated as if the bad things that happen around him are his fault. Like the flaming ferret, the boy’s innocuous presence somehow ignites the fires of racism, antisemitism, pederasty, sexual frustration, religious intolerance, mistrust… you name it. That is why, inevitably, his arc in the movie is the journey from vulnerability to desensitisation, with a glimmer in the end that he might actually regain his humanity. And if he does, there is still hope for the human race.

The opening dialogue of Come and See is also significant. “Hey, are you crazy?” says the village elder to two boys, admonishing them for going around trying to find buried rifles so they can join the partisans. Flyora, the protagonist, finds one and extracts it from the earth as if he were delivering an unbridled life-and-death force. He couldn’t be happier; it feels like a rite of passage. Except he is spotted by Nazis in a reconnaissance plane who, within the logic of the movie, choose to target his village because of what they see: a militant young man with a gun. A few days later, Flyora comes across the village elder lying in agony after being set on fire by the Nazis. Charred and barely able to speak, the old man accuses Flyora of the slaughter being his fault, much like Auntie Marta did with Joska. Throughout the film, we find ourselves wondering if Flyora has indeed lost his mind, or if he can retain his sanity and empathy towards others in the face of the ineffable pain and loss that he experiences in the course of a few days.

Auntie Marta’s reaction to Joska holding the dead ferret in The Painted Bird.

The opening line of Come and See …becomes one of the underlying themes of the film.

In Come and See we have context to help explain – if not justify – why Flyora feels guilty about the tragedy that befell his village. His mom had also begged him not to join the partisans and leave her and his twin sisters alone. “Just kill us now and be done with it,” she tells him as she hands him an axe. As it happens, it is implied that Flyora’s family is indeed killed by the Nazis in a scene in which, transcending the audiovisual quality of the medium, the five senses are at play. It reeks of death as we see flies hovering about the lukewarm food and the girls’ dolls on the floor.

When Auntie Marta tells Joska that the ferret’s death is his fault, she is not being cruel but mainly giving him a reality check. She reminds him, “You shouldn’t go out on your own”, meaning that they live in a world where the only way to avoid such a fate is by cultivating one’s own garden. Moreover, she gives him practical advice regarding his boots: “Give them a good clean. You’re only half a man with dirty boots.” Aside from propelling one of the incisive leitmotifs in the film, this tidbit of wisdom will save the boy’s life some time later when a Nazi officer is about to shoot him and Joska instinctively starts cleaning his boot, tarnished by a Jewish man who spat on it before being executed.

Auntie Marta preaches by example. We never see her leave the house, and then one day she simply stops breathing while washing her feet. Her death is so inconspicuous that it takes Joska a full day to realise she’s there but not there anymore. From behind she looks like the still-life mother in the basement in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960). In his surprise, the boy drops a gas lamp that sets the corpse of Auntie Marta and her house ablaze, emulating the ferret. Joska learns that he lives in a world where death cannot be avoided. Even if you never left your bed, the roof might still collapse on you.

Mommie dearest in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Auntie Marta has passed away, unbeknownst to Joska.

Although he was responsible for the burning of the house, even if involuntarily, there is no indication that Joska believes Auntie Marta’s death was in any way his fault. He is forced to wander into a village where he is received with exemplary hostility: rabid dogs, cold stares, shoving, pitchforks – the assumption being that he will bring them bad luck. After whipping the boy, the villagers debate on whether to drown him or burn him alive. Joska is saved by Olga, a shaman healer who is into witchcraft and takes him on as a full-time helper.

Villagers in Come and See (left) and The Painted Bird (right).

With the exception of one shot of a German plane reminiscent of the hypnotic leitmotif of an Fw-189 flying overhead in Come and See, so far there isn’t much in The Painted Bird to let us know that the story takes place during World War II. The timelessness and geographical non-specificity of the film are enhanced by the use of the Interslavic Esperanto language. The “Olga” episode expands the boundaries of ubiquity by making us feel as if we’re back in the Middle Ages. The villagers have caught the plague, and wrapped corpses are being burned left and right. Joska himself falls ill and Olga takes it upon herself to restore him to health in an unconventional way. She digs a hole in the ground and buries him naked, up to the neck, so the cool soil can perform its magic on him. The following morning crows are drawn to the still-buried Joska and start pecking on his head, in a scene evocative of the famous shower scene in Psycho and the winged attacks in The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), in that the impact stems from virtuosic editing and harrowing sound design, rather than from what is actually shown.

Joska and the crows.

Not only does Olga scare the crows away as soon as she sees them, but most importantly, Joska is cured all right. This is a far cry from the assertion that “The old woman then drags him to the middle of nowhere, burying him up to his neck, so that menacing black birds can peck at his skull.” 11 Some audience members might understandably experience cultural dissonance here, but this is not a punitive act. Punitive is what was done to David Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Ôshima, 1983) when he was buried like Joska and left to die in a Japanese POW camp.

Celliers (David Bowie) being punished by Japanese servicemen in Ôshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Joska being healed by Olga’s shamanic remedies.

The transitions between episodes in The Painted Bird show how life is shaped by fate – the sort that owes more to randomness than predetermination. At the end of the “Olga” episode, a jealous villager makes Joska fall into a river and he nearly drowns as the current sweeps him away into the unknown. Having floated adrift and barely holding on to a log, Joska is found unconscious by an able-bodied young man, a labourer, who brings the boy to his employers, a miller and his wife who lost their son. Upon seeing Joska, the middle-aged miller (superbly played by Udo Kier) turns away from him and sagely declares “He’ll just bring misfortune. Dog’s blood!”, before he spits on the floor and walks away.

“That’ll put a stop to your staring, you bastard!” (Udo Kier as the miller).

Notwithstanding, Joska is allowed to stay, and it is here that he gets his first taste of seriously dysfunctional family life, and we are subjected to Udo Kier’s magnetism. The miller suspects that his wife and the labourer are flirting, which is not unfounded. His handling of the situation is unique, though: one evening at dinner, after saying a Christian prayer and staging an unnerving sex act with cats aimed at his wife and alleged lover, the miller gouges the labourer’s eyes out with a spoon and throws him out of the house. Yet again, the audio is considerably more graphic than the visuals. We don’t see much, but Joska does, up close. In one of the shots that the film’s detractors are bound to find most objectionable or derisible, 12 we see Joska’s intent to retrieve the eyeballs so that a cat doesn’t consume them. Is this shot necessary? Yes, it is, because Joska leaves the mill, never to return, in order to find the blind labourer and give him his eyes back, in the hope that he may one day see again. Joska’s noble act runs contrary to The New York Times’ charge of “literal-minded visualisation” against the film 13. In the novel the miller squashes the eyeballs with his boots. In the film’s humanistic turn, Marhoul’s interpretation is the opposite of “an ambitious adaptation (…) that doesn’t quite translate to the screen”, 14 let alone of gratuitous violence.

By the end of the “Miller” episode, Joska is starting to take matters into his own hands. This time he chooses to leave, as opposed to his parting with Olga. The miller’s wife secretly gives him an indispensable “comet”, a portable stove that also serves as a source of heat, to aid his journey. Joska feeds himself and traverses the land in search of a job. Cinematically, this is expressed by what will henceforth become a stylistic trait in The Painted Bird: a semicircular dolly that starts in profile and ends behind Joska, revealing what lies ahead, enhanced by the film’s glorious 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The camera movement gives the shot a contemplative aura, and landing on the spacious over-the-shoulder composition allows us to experience things along with Joska.


…and end of the semicircular dolly that closes the “Miller” episode.

“Lekh & Ludmila” starts with an assertion of identity on Joska’s part, punctuated by a change in cinematic style from deep-focus cinematography to the use of shallow depth of field. Joska is looking for a job with a bird catcher who at first eyes him with suspicion and interrogates him. At this point the audience doesn’t know if Joska is a Gypsy or a Jew. The boy doesn’t know either, or the implications thereof, but he asserts he’s not a gypsy and proves he can cross himself like a Christian, a useful skill in this part of the world. After making sure Joska is light enough to climb up trees, Lekh takes him under the tacit auspices of male bonding. He offers him homemade vodka that looks like it could make one go blind; Joska doesn’t go for it and Lekh obliges and guzzles it himself. Also courtesy of Lekh, Joska witnesses his first nonfeline sexual act, carried out in the fields between Lekh and his girlfriend Ludmila, a Fellinesque sex worker who incites the village boys into sexual initiation. Most significantly, Lekh shows Joska what happens when he paints the feathers of a bird, given to him by Ludmila, and then releases it to freely join a flock: it gets attacked by all the other birds in unison because of its perceived otherness. Besides giving the film and Kosiński’s novel their title, this incident helps Joska understand the lamentable predictability of the human condition. If you’re different, chances are you will not only be rejected but also ripped to shreds.

Joska holds the dead painted bird.

The irony is that what befalls the painted bird, which amused Lekh, becomes the fate of Ludmila soon after. The women in the village assault Ludmila in a vicious way because of what she’s done with their boys. Lekh tries to defend her but he is overpowered by the frenzied women. In a close-up similar to when Joska saw his ferret burned alive, Lekh sees how Ludmila is raped – and worse – with a bottle. As usual, we hear more than what we actually see, and Joska witnesses all in excruciating detail; ghastly actions are experienced by the audience mainly through their imprint on Joska.

Joska sees how his ferret is burned alive by other children.

Lekh sees how his Ludmila is brutalised by other women.

In the next scene Ludmila lies dead next to Lekh as a result of the attack. Like Olga had done with him, Joska tries to heal the bird catcher’s wounds, but Lekh is uncharacteristically rude to him. Then we have another one of those trademark semicircular dollies that signify landmarks in Joska’s development. It begins with a frontal one-quarter angle on Joska seen through the bars of Lekh’s barn, and ends with an over-the-shoulder where it is revealed he’s looking impassively at Lekh’s door. Still on the same shot, now fixed, Joska hears a noise and runs to find – on a reverse angle, showing effect before cause – that Lekh has hanged himself and is writhing in agony. Incapable of saving him, in an act of mercy Joska embraces him and pulls down to ease his torture. In a lovely act of poetic mirroring, Joska releases all the birds from their cages at the end of the “Lekh and Ludmila” episode.

Anatomy of a shot: the semicircular dolly ends in a fixed over-the-shoulder; composition-in-depth of Joska running towards Lekh’s door in the background.

Joska releases the birds after Lekh’s death.

In “Hans”, Joska finds a wounded horse and, speaking for the third and next-to-last time in the film, reassures him that he’s going to help him. He brings the crippled horse to the village where it came from, trusting it will be restored to health, just like Olga had done with him. Instead, the owner puts a noose over the horse’s neck and ties the rope to a plow. Joska runs to him and utters his final word in the film, “No!”, to no avail. Two strong, healthy horses pull on the rope and make the victim’s neck snap instantaneously. Yet again, the sound is explicit but the camera remains on Joska’s face. Words have failed him as he failed the crippled horse.

It is in this episode, exactly one hour into the movie, that the arrival of Red partisans clarifies beyond doubt the context of World War II. The heretofore almost entirely silent soundtrack gives way to festive diegetic music in a bar, and at the behest of a commander, vodka is poured into Joska’s mouth. Joska sleeps it off with his head resting on the leather boot of the commander, whose designs for the boy become clear the following morning: “It’ll please the Fritzes. We need this village.” Translation: this village can be spared from the Nazis if the boy is offered to them as a sacrificial victim… or a Jew, to be precise. Fate’s randomness and the war have turned Joska from a Gypsy into a Jew, and from now on we will not hear him utter another word. In a radical departure from the novel, the film treats Joska’s muteness as a conscious choice.

The horse owner promptly delivers Joska to a Nazi sergeant, who asks for a volunteer to execute him. That would be Hans (played by Stellan Skarsgård). Rifle and shovel in hand, he takes Joska to the woods by way of train tracks that stop all of a sudden, like life itself is about to, and Hans sits down to smoke his pipe. He gestures to the boy to run and shoots into the air twice, letting him live with the same ease that he could have killed him. Comparably though for other reasons, in a tense moment of Come and See a Nazi officer puts a gun against Flyora’s temple, posing for a photo, and even though they are amidst an orgy of killing, he can’t be bothered to pull the trigger. For some reason we do not need to know, Hans spares Joska, and the world is a bit better off because of it.

The Painted Bird now tackles head-on the nightmare of World War II with a series of scenes where, for the first time, Joska is not the protagonist. Jewish prisoners try to escape from a train on its way to a concentration camp, and they are all killed. Villagers take the spoils, and then Nazi officers do the rounds to make sure no one lives, burning more bodies in the process and goading on a woman and her baby by shooting around her feet before a dutiful soldier executes them both. For a moment it seems as if Joska was not privy to all this, but then the trademark semicircular dolly shot reveals him with a twig in his mouth, once again witnessing the horror at a distance. The shot also brings to light that the numbness has set in.

Just when it seemed that Joska had been spared the massacre of Jewish prisoners…

…the semicircular dolly reveals otherwise, with the smoke in the background.

Once the coast is clear, Joska approaches the scene of the massacre to take a closer look. He sees the charred bodies and opens up a valise with personal belongings, except such tokens have lost their meaning. He then comes across a Jewish boy about his age whom the Nazis didn’t finish off. He observes him a bit like an entomologist would: curious, dispassionate, assessing the situation. The boy is dying and nothing can change that. Joska has been going around barefoot since he was delivered to the Nazis, so he takes the boy’s boots (again, the boot motif). The editing does not reveal if their owner is dead or alive to notice. The thickening of Joska’s defences prevails over the audience’s hope for a moment of empathy or sentimentality.

The entomologist in The Painted Bird.

Joska takes the dying Jewish boy´s boots. Was this the last image the boy ever saw?

There is a similar scene in Come and See. After the Soviet partisans take a village back from the Nazis who burned most of its inhabitants alive, Flyora finds an attractive German woman in uniform lying on the ground, barely alive, with her guts spilled out. This is the same woman who a few minutes before was eating a lobster while witnessing the massacre of communists and Jews as if she were watching an opera from a theatre balcony box. Flyora gives her the entomologist look, picks up a bandage from a first-aid kit that is lying next to her, and proceeds not to help her but to mend the broken handle of his rifle. Much like in the scene with Joska and the Jewish boy, there is no cruelty, no vindictiveness, no ill will; only matter-of-fact behavior whereby Flyora’s and Joska’s internal compasses point towards survival.

The entomologist in Come and See.

The dying SS woman, on whom Flyora does not waste the bandage he can use to fix his rifle.

Something both Joska and Flyora have in common is that their consciousness about the world shifts into dreaming with their eyes open. The gates of hell have been released and a torrent of live ammo is constantly pouring in. Survival lies somewhere between will to live and chance. Case in point, during the massacre in Come and See, Belarusian collaborators put a bed-ridden grandma in the middle of the road and tell her, “We’ll leave you as a breeder. Produce lots of kids, grandma.” She barely blinks. As all her compatriots, this woman has inescapably witnessed, lived through, and survived at the very least World War II, World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution; quite likely also the Japanese invasion, the aborted 1905 Revolution, the rise of the Black Hundreds, Belarusian attempts at independence, the division of Lithuania, the Soviet-Polish war – you get my point. Living and dying are two faces of a coin that has been flipped and could land on either side at any moment…. And just as that thought strikes our head, Joska is knocked unconscious by a Nazi soldier.

“Priest & Garbos” has Joska and a middle-aged Jewish man delivered for imminent execution. This is the incident where Joska saves his own life by cleaning the Nazi’s boot. In another interesting departure from the novel, Joska exerts his will to live by doing whatever it takes to stay alive, whereas in the book he is almost indifferent: “In the presence of his resplendent being, armed in all the symbols of might and majesty, I was genuinely ashamed of my appearance. I had nothing against his killing me.” 15

The arc of the cinematic Joska is what makes for an inspired and thoughtful literary adaptation. We get to know him through his nonverbal actions, which reveal his character objectively, whereas in the novel our bond is mostly through his subjective verbal recollections. After that narrow escape, a Catholic priest (played by Harvey Keitel) adopts him and compares him to Christ: “He endured iniquity from many people, like you. I trust you.” The priest has the good sense of masking Joska’s Jewish identity by training him as an altar boy who performs with him in mass, but his instinct of accepting the parishioner Garbos’ “Christian” proposal of looking after Joska is less well founded. The priest is suffering from a terminal illness, so it is understandable that he wants to ensure Joska’s placement with a trustworthy man – but that, Garbos is not. “Eat up. You’ll need your strength,” he tells Joska, and that night he sodomises him. As should be abundantly clear by now, we do not see the unconscionable act itself. The camera slowly dollies-in towards the bedroom, as we hear Joska sobbing inside. The door suddenly opens and we see Garbos adjusting his pants on the foreground, with Joska’s nude torso in bed on the background, in soft focus. Garbos exits, the focus racks to Joska, and the camera stops dollying-in, in deference to the abused boy.

When the priest pays them a visit a few days later, Joska wants to communicate what is going on; Garbos makes sure he can’t. The priest can sense that something is awry, and he tells Garbos he wants him to resume confession and Joska to attend church again. Bad idea. The moment he’s out of sight, Garbos suspends Joska from the ceiling, with his infernal dog (“Judas”, in the novel) barking at him and eager to bite him: “You’ll say nothing. Or I’ll kill you.” Garbos is a flatliner psychopath – “a mammal of a different breed” 16, as Kosiński quotes Mayakovsky in the book’s epigraph – rather convincingly played by Julian Sands. When they finally go back to church, Joska plays an organ that doesn’t make a sound, in stark contrast with the innocent piano playing he did for Auntie Marta at the beginning of the film. Music, like his voice, has evaporated from his life. The priest tells Garbos, “I’m glad you take such good care of him,” which is unintended shorthand for Garbos that the man-of-god either suspects the truth or knows it but is too cowardly to take any action. In either case, the coin is about to land on the wrong side for Joska. “I warned you,” says Garbos back home, as he prepares to do who-knows-what with an axe and a rope. This is the turning point for Joska, who must act in order to avoid death. Even though he’s on the floor with his hands tied, Joska manages to slide out of his pocket a knife he had found at an abandoned Nazi bunker. He needs to kill Garbos to stay alive, but Garbos sees the knife. The coin flips to the side of “live a bit longer” simply because greedy Garbos wants more gadgets from wherever this knife came from. He forces Joska to lead him to the bunker, and there Joska enacts a form of ingenious creative resistance by tricking Garbos to fall into a pit teeming with hundreds of ravenous rats. Garbos will molest him no more. In the ethos of The Painted Bird, this is not murder but a justifiable act of self-defence.

Joska yanks Garbos into a pit full of rats. Good riddance.

This should be a victory for Joska. He returns to the church but the friendly, albeit unwise priest has died and been replaced by another one who ominously tells Joska, “I’ve already heard about you.” Joska resumes his stint as an acolyte, but one day he trips distractedly and drops a sacred book. The new priest and the parishioners exact revenge on him by throwing him into a latrine. Revenge for what, exactly? Being a painted bird.

So off he goes into the snowy landscape in the episode entitled “Labina”, which starts with the trademark shot broken in two parts. This might have been because of the technical difficulties of pulling off in the knee-deep snow a meandering boom-up dolly-in combined with a semicircular dolly (imagine the shape of a question mark) that ends in the usual over-the-shoulder behind the boy, but I’d rather believe that the fragmentation is a hint of the emotional rupture that is about to redefine the narrative of Joska’s story.

Fragmented semicircular approach as montage of two moving shots, rather than a continuous long take.

The boy spends an undetermined period of time in solitude. He sleeps in a shack with sheep, steals food from a winter storage place, makes fires, cooks for himself, etc., and eventually he stumbles upon Labina. When they meet she is taking care of her husband, an old man who seems straight out of an Andrei Rublev fresco. Labina assumes that Joska is dumb and lets him stay. Her husband dies in suspicious circumstances. An enigmatic shot links Joska in the foreground, awake, with Labina in the background, blurry and in full sexual rapture, when we hear something snap, much like the neck of the crippled horse. Her libido is liberated; Thanatos has given way to Eros.

Eros and Thanatos.

Joska buries the old man for Labina, whose mourning doesn’t last long. The way she fondles the corn and the close-ups of her fleshy lips are but a prelude for what is to come in terms of Joska’s sexual initiation. His schooling entails cunnilingus, Labina invariably on top, and sporadic bouts of tenderness combined with slapping him during sex. Predictably enough, she gets frustrated with his inexperience. “You’re useless,” is her verdict. The disparity resides in that she wants sex and he is starved for the love he has barely, if ever had. When she is milking a goat, he approaches from behind and tentatively puts his hands on her face. She rejects him as an annoying pest. If we care about Joska, this moment makes us cringe even more than when physical violence is inflicted against him. The difference is that Joska has made himself more vulnerable by reaching out to Labina, and these scars leave a lasting mark in the boy’s soul and sense of self. In the next scene Labina gets angry with him because he has cut a slice of bread for her: “You think I can’t manage to cut one for myself?” She starts despising him merely for existing.

And then one day Labina summons Joska in a sensual way, only to humiliate him by pretending to have sex with a goat instead of him. Never does the film show any act of bestiality, as has been bafflingly reported by some critics; eg: “A blonde teenager commits an act of bestiality out of spite.” 17

Sporadic bouts of tenderness.

Labina taunts Joska… and us.

For the first time, we see Joska react in an overt way. He is hurt and he cries out loud, something we have never seen before, despite all the atrocities and indignities to which he has borne witness. Nothing like a sexual mishap to irreparably shape a boy’s character. In a parade of people who have hurt him willingly (the ferret killers, the Red partisan commander, psychopathic Garbos) or unwillingly (his parents by abandoning him with Auntie Marta, Lekh by doing himself in, the priest by handing him over to Garbos), no one has affected him in quite the same way as Labina. He now needs to do unto others as others have done to him all along: blame an innocent being – a scapegoat, literally. He fetches Labina’s goat, fully aware that the creature is guiltless, and hangs him from a tree, the poor animal bleating in terror. He visits Labina at night and hurls the goat’s head into her bedroom, smashing the window and possibly her libido, judging from her shrieks. The “Labina” episode is a rite of passage not only sexually but also in terms of Joska crossing the line from which there is no return: senseless killing.

Garbos’ to Joska, who has long stopped saying anything to anyone.

Joska takes Labina’s humiliation out on a scapegoat.

In many ways Joska reminds me of Pedro, the protagonist of Los olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950), an undeniably “good kid” whose impossible social environment turns him, by sheer necessity of survival, into a potential killer in the slums of Mexico City. On the back cover of the first Spanish edition of The Painted Bird appears a quote by Buñuel: “This is the book that has impressed me the most in the last few years.” 18 In strict chronology Los olvidados’ Pedro would be a precursor of both literary and cinematic Joskas. Pedro is set up as a boy who loves animals, particularly chickens. He learns that the way his mother deals with an unwelcome rooster is by beating him to death with a broom. When Pedro is sent to a progressive reformatory farm for a crime he didn’t commit (stealing a knife), he is tasked with collecting eggs because of his fondness for chickens. One day he feels hungry and, defying the rules, he pokes a hole in an egg, takes a gulp, spits it out, and then throws the egg directly at the lens, smearing it in our faces as if telling the audience, “What the hell are you looking at?”

Pedro breaks the fourth wall in Buñuel’s Mexican film Los olvidados, a decade before the French New Wave made it “nouvelle” to do so.

When Pedro is ratted out by another kid, which leads to an unruly fight, he resorts to doing what he learned at home: he takes a stick and beats a couple of chickens to death. Pedro has just killed what he loved most. The floodgates are open. Later in the film he will try to kill Jaibo, the alpha male of the slum and surrogate father figure responsible for many of Pedro’s misfortunes, but he is overpowered and killed by the more street-savvy Jaibo. This is the survival of the fittest Mexican-style. In the last shot of the movie, which gets ingrained in one’s mind forever, Pedro’s corpse gets dumped into a garbage landfill by his best friend Meche and her grandfather, who are making sure they’re not implicated in the murder. Not unlike Marhoul, Buñuel and other directors responsible for cinematic masterpieces – eg: Misaki Kobayashi (The Human Condition, 1959-1961), Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966), Larisa Shepitko (The Ascent, 1977) – have also been accused of cruelty because of the objectivity of their gaze, aesthetic rigor bordering on asceticism, and absolute lack of sentimentality. This kind of cinema avoids facile emotional manipulation and instead creates truly indelible memories that give us a realistic understanding of the human condition.

Back to Joska’s journey. After the “Labina” episode, which leaves him badly scarred, Joska hits rock bottom. In a forest indistinguishable from the one where his ferret was killed, he murders an innocent old man in order to steal his clothes, fur hat, and comet. If fate doesn’t deliver something substantial soon, Joska’s dehumanisation will be irreversible. For someone as keenly aware of film grammar as Marhoul is, it is no surprise that this crucial moment is delivered in a highly meaningful way. It is a variation of what I’ve been referring to as the trademark shot, but this time Joska is not an immobile subject explored by the camera in passive contemplation of what lies ahead. The camera tilts down a tree and finds Joska on the left of frame, crouching on the foreground, using the tree to hide from the old man approaching in the distance from the right. As the camera does the semicircular dolly, Joska moves along, sneaking around the tree. The mise-en-scène is such that there is a significant crossing of the line, whereby Joska is now on the right and the old man on the left of frame, implying that Joska will soon cross a huge moral line. The camera ends on an over-the-shoulder of Joska actively sizing up what lies ahead: consciously taking the life of someone who, unlike Garbos, absolutely does not deserve it.

Semi-circular dolly crosses the 180-degree line, just as Joska is about to cross the line from which there might be no return.

Stylistically, the shot of Joska assaulting the old man is highly reminiscent of Pedro beating the chickens, which has always reminded me of another “good lad” gone astray, Alex in A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971), not to mention the “good ape” Moonwatcher, aka celluloid simian precursor of the human race, in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

The Painted Bird (left) and Los olvidados (right)

A Clockwork Orange (left) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (right).

“Mitka” introduces three different groups of soldiers in succession – Nazis, Cossacks, and Soviets – and what they all have in common is that they bring about doom for the villagers. When the Cossacks invade, the villagers yell “Germans! Cossacks!” because the Germans are using the Cossacks against the Bolshevik regime in their zeal for the return of the old pro-fascist order. This fact is a timely reminder that Hitler did not invade the Soviet Union without collaborators. For the half-drunken Cossacks fixated on wreaking havoc, anything that moves is a target. Few escape the massacre. This is The Painted Bird’s version of the apocalypse, comparable to the burning of the people in the barn in Come and See. Out of nowhere, like an apparition, a nude man and woman gallop away on a horse. As much as I would like to believe the attack caught them in the middle of lovemaking, it is in fact a Cossack showing his prowess at raping a villager while on horseback – though the woman’s relaxed demeanour still makes it ambivalent.

Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

What Marhoul shows during the Cossack attack pales in comparison to the book’s corresponding chapter, which is really the stuff that nightmares are made of. To quote Buñuel again, it is “a journey to the realm of nightmares and anxiety, to a world of injustice, our own world.” 19 And then the Soviet planes descend from heaven and the tanks roll in to punish the Cossacks, who end up decoratively hanging upside down from trees. Soviet soldiers chat and smoke, impervious to the dangling bodies; for the first time in the movie, we see the hint of a smile on Joska’s face.

The hint of a smile…

…in response to a hint of justice.

In the next scene Joska is throwing stones in a river when he is joined by a Soviet soldier. Joska zones in on the hammer-and-sickle emblem on his army cap, evocative of the Red partisan commander who first had him delivered to the Nazis. In character, Joska doesn’t reply to any of his questions, but the boy’s eloquent silence brings out – for a change, rather than indiscriminate prejudice – empathy from a stranger. Furthermore, there seems to be a sense of recognition or identification, as if the Soviet soldier inherently knows what Joska has been through. This bond works well dramatically because it will hamper the boy’s dehumanisation, and also because of the metacinematic lineage it celebrates. Gavrila, the soldier, is played by none other than Aleksey Kravchenko, Come and See’s Flyora. Here they are, face to face, 35 years after Flyora prefigured his The Painted Bird alter ego. There could hardly be a character in the history of cinema better suited to understand Joska. If the boy were to regain his voice, this would be the catalyst, but Joska remains silent, leading us to wonder if he will ever choose to speak again.

Come and See meets The Painted Bird – the symbolic reunion of Flyora (now Gavrila) and Joska.

Aleksey Kravchenko as Flyora in 1985 (left) and as Gavrila in 2019.

Gavrila takes Joska to the Red Army camp as an orphan and introduces him to his friend Mitka. The casting of Barry Pepper as Mitka represents another branch in the genealogical tree of cinema: Pepper had an important role in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), whose hallucinatory opening sequence, the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach, was clearly inspired by Come and See. Gavrila and Mitka give Joska a Soviet army uniform and when the boy tries it on, they notice the whipping scars on his back. Gavrila tells him, “It will fit you just right.” It won’t; uniforms will never fit Joska right. That may be the fundamental difference between him and Flyora. Whereas Flyora joins the partisans at the end of Come and See in order to fight the Nazis, Joska is on his way to becoming a misfit like Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959) – loners who viscerally resist organisations and institutions because they are made of people who, in the name of questionable principles, won’t bother with you as an individual.

Soviet soldiers Mitka and Gavrila discuss Joska’s future in The Painted Bird.

Astronauts Bowman and Poole discuss HAL’s future in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A budding friendship: Mitka and Joska.

During Gavrila’s impromptu absence, Mitka and Joska start hanging out together. Mitka cleans the barrel of his own gun and Joska scrupulously cleans Mitka’s boots, as Auntie Marta advised. Joska can hardly keep his eyes off Mitka’s gun, and Mitka notices the boy’s fixation. That night there’s a commotion in the camp. Four Soviet soldiers who defied orders and presumably mixed with the local women have been killed by the villagers. Defying orders himself, Mitka sets out at dawn to settle accounts and lets Joska join him. They perch themselves on a tree. Mitka shares his food with Joska and lends him his binoculars so Joska can see firsthand how Mitka, a crack sniper, reciprocates and kills four villagers, including a boy about Joska’s age. “Remember this,” he tells Joska, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Such are the life lessons of war. Before parting, Mitka surreptitiously gifts Joska the gun the boy had admired. Mitka is now well aware that the uniform will indeed never fit Joska right. The gun is for Joska to defend himself from the perils of everyday life, but the last episode of the film will prove that it is an invisible line between that and, when provoked, resorting to murder. Mitka understands Joska much better than Gavrila, despite the latter’s well-meaning attitude towards the boy. As if to ensure there shall be no flawless character in this movie, Gavrila’s farewell counsel to Joska is that he should always act like a communist, a dictum Gavrila forged after his own hero, Comrade Stalin.

Gavrila’s hamartia: Be like Stalin.

Mitka’s present to Joska: Now that he’s got a gun, what?

Aesthetically “Nikodem & Joska” elicits a cyclical feeling because the film goes back to the composition-in-depth look of Act One. Back then having fore, mid, and background planes all in focus implied that, in his naivete, Joska was highly susceptible and affected by everything around him, whereas now he is at a stage in his development where there will be more selectivity and clarity of purpose. Every man has his reasons; whether these are moral or not is a different matter. Joska marches into an institutional orphanage, an arrangement made by the Soviet Army on his behalf. He appears not to know the answers to any of the questions he is asked concerning his name or date of birth. It is the sort of place where kids bully an amputee and wear identifying numbers on their clothes. Forced to shed the uniform, Joska now gets a sense of self-assurance from the gun he secretly carries around. Not surprisingly, at the first opportunity he escapes the orphanage through barbed wire, just like when Antoine ran away from the reformatory in a memorable long take in The 400 Blows. But unlike Antoine, he is caught sooner than later. The punishment will be yet another whipping, this one in crucifixion mode. Joska finds solace from it all by lying face up on the tracks as a train passes over him. He smiles contentedly, taunting death.

The priest once told him, “Christ endured iniquity from many people, like you.” How many more whippings is Joska willing to endure?

Joska then wanders into the open marketplace of the war-ravaged town. A rocking-horse toy attracts his attention. He touches it; after all, he’s still a child. The stallholder assumes that he intended to steal it, and humiliates him in front of the crowd: “Don’t you understand, you dirty Jid? Eh? For that sort the best place is behind barbed wire anyway!” He slaps him across the face, drawing blood. Joska is past enduring iniquity. He stalks the stallholder with surgical precision. A final variation of the trademark shot ensues, this time with no camera movement whatsoever. The fixed shot of Joska half hidden behind a wall, waiting, cuts straight to the familiar over-the-shoulder. The camera no longer needs to explore his psyche.

Two fixed, straight cuts convey the “semicircular approach”; no movement, no crossing the line – Joska knows what’s what.

There is no hesitation in Joska. He once killed an old man out of perceived necessity to steal his belongings, but he knows this is different. That was then; this is pure, coldblooded vengeance, like Mitka’s sniping, or like Jaibo and Pedro’s gang’s assault of a cripple in Los Olvidados. (Could the legless cripple also in this shot be a nod to Buñuel?) Joska follows the stallholder into a building shaped like a tunnel, and facing him, shoots him twice in the heart with the gun Mitka gave him. The way it’s filmed, with Joska in complete silhouette, his offender would not have seen who exacted from him “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.

Eisenstein-like dialectical montage of high angle/low angle and life/death.

In the next scene the director of the orphanage, last seen flogging Joska, orders him to wait in a bare room that feels like a cell. Joska sees and hears the rumble of the man’s shadow having a discussion with another shadow, both distorted by a textured pane of glass. He grows concerned. Is this finally the time for reckoning? No, because it’s not the police coming to apprehend him for the murder of the stallholder. Yes, because the second shadow turns out to be his father. Nikodem, who at long last has come to fetch his son. But a lot has happened since, while still living with Auntie Marta, Joska made a drawing with the plea “Come and fetch me” and entrusted it to a brook in the form of a toy sailboat meant to summon his parents. When his father embraces him with a mixture of love, guilt, and fear, Joska merely stares blankly.

Joska’s drawing, in the beginning of the film.

Father and son, reunited but separate, near the end of the film.

Joska cannot feel anything.

Later Nikodem makes cabbage soup for Joska and tries to explain how he and Joska’s mother thought it would be best to send their son to Auntie Marta because “there was no other way”. Joska flips the bowl of soup to the ground and leaves the table. Nikodem yells after him, “Wait! Do you remember at least what your name is?” Joska exits and Nikodem weeps, a broken man. An elliptical cut of Joska shattering windows provides an ambivalent answer to his father’s question. This is his second unhinged display of emotions in the film (the previous being when Labina made it clear that sex with a goat was preferable to sex with him). Joska has the opportunity to calm down that night and gain perspective in the company of unknown, random people who are lucky to be alive even if homeless and shell-shocked by the war. Joska focuses on the closeness and shared silence of a father holding his son; for some time now, only weapons had been able to draw his attention thus.

The following morning Nikodem and Joska find themselves in a bus that is taking them home. Joska is still not speaking to his dad, but he alternates between looking out the window and surmising this strange man with whom he might ultimately have something in common.

As Nikodem dozes off, Joska notices that there is a number tattooed on his father’s arm. There is nothing in the film to suggest that Joska knows that this is the mark of a concentration camp and that his father has suffered too. But Joska has been through the nine circles of hell, he has changed for better or worse, and with that comes an intuitive understanding of a kindred soul. He can now accept his dad the way Gavrila/Flyora identified with him. This is no Dantesque encounter with Beatrice, but it could be the first step towards healing. Whatever the reason, the tattoo prompts the boy to spell his name, “Joska”, on the soiled window of the bus. Joska looks at the writing of his own name, at his dad, out the window, and we start hearing the only non-diegetic music used in the entire film… At long last, a moment of clarity.

A moment of clarity.

An aerial shot shows the frail bus winding down the road towards an uncertain future. It tilts up towards an empty sky, suddenly populated by one lonely bird also trying to find its way – whether it is painted or not we cannot tell.

Against all odds, there is meaning in the discomfort or outright pain we experience when we witness Joska’s transformation into that unrecognizable but eerily familiar self that is latent in all of us. To regain his and our humanity, Joska and we as onlookers need to embrace the painted bird. Only then can we call ourselves human, all-too-human, by acknowledging that things are not always what they seem when it comes to our initial regard of otherness, be it in the form of people we come across in life to certain kinds of films that yield infinitely more upon closer exploration.

The story of Joska – as well as those of Flyora, Pedro, Antoine Doinel, and countless others – helps us understand the circumstances that shaped these children to become who they are, whether we approve of the outcome or not. These films ask us to set moral principles aside and engage with the complexities of the particulars on a case-by-case basis. Their aesthetic rigor and lack of sentimentality compel us to face a deeply troubling human drama that unfolds in a committed, detached, open-minded way that can, through the power of cinema, make sense of what happened. Don’t walk out; come and see (and listen closely to) The Painted Bird.


  1. Alci Rengifo, “In Fiercely Disturbing The Painted Bird, Survival Is a Struggle Full of Unforgettable Horrors,” Entertainment Voice, July 2020.
  2. Peter Debruge, “Stop the Punishment! Why I Walked Out of ‘The Painted Bird’ (Column),” Variety, July 17 2020.
  3. Malcolm Gladwell, “The Standard Case,” Revisionist History, July 18 2019.
  4. Ben Kenigsberg, “The Painted Bird Review: Horrors That Can’t Be Unseen,” The New York Times, July 16 2020.
  5. Peter Debruge, “Stop the Punishment! Why I Walked Out of ‘The Painted Bird’ (Column),” Variety, July 17 2020.
  6. Peter Debruge, “Stop the Punishment! Why I Walked Out of ‘The Painted Bird’ (Column),” Variety, July 17 2020.
  7. Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird (New York: Grove Press, second edition, 1976), p. 8.
  8. Ben Kenigsberg, “The Painted Bird Review: Horrors That Can’t Be Unseen,” The New York Times, July 16 2020.
  9. Alci Rengifo, “In Fiercely Disturbing The Painted Bird, Survival Is a Struggle Full of Unforgettable Horrors,” Entertainment Voice, July 2020.
  10. Graça Machel; Photography by Sebastião Salgado (UBC Press, 2001)
  11. Peter Debruge, “Stop the Punishment! Why I Walked Out of ‘The Painted Bird’ (Column),” Variety, July 17 July, 2020.
  12. Ryan Gilbey, “When art films attack: why The Painted Bird’s try-hard horrors fail to land,” The Guardian, September 14 2020.
  13. Ben Kenigsberg, “The Painted Bird Review: Horrors That Can’t Be Unseen,” The New York Times, July 16 2020.
  14. Ben Kenigsberg, “The Painted Bird Review: Horrors That Can’t Be Unseen,” The New York Times, July 16 2020.
  15. Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird (New York: Grove Press, second edition, 1976), p. 114.
  16. Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird (New York: Grove Press, second edition, 1976), p. vii.
  17. David Ehrlich, “The Painted Bird Review: A Gruesome Three-Hour Parade of Inhumanity,” IndieWire, July 15 2020.
  18. Jerzy Kosiński, El pájaro pintado (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1968)
  19. Jerzy Kosiński, El pájaro pintado (México: Editorial Grijalbo, 1968)

About The Author

Salvador Carrasco is a Mexican film director based in Santa Monica, California. He is the writer, director, and editor of the highly acclaimed and influential feature film La otra conquista (The Other Conquest, 1999) about the Spanish colonization of Mexico, which was a cultural breakthrough and the highest-grossing historical drama in Mexican cinema at the time of its release. It was selected by The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times as one of the Top Ten Films of 2000, and re-released theatrically by Alliance Atlantis in 2008, achieving a 90% score by Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics. Carrasco has won numerous film and academic awards, and is currently developing new projects through his production company, Salvastian Pictures, including film adaptations of stories by preeminent writers Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Stephen Graham Jones. Carrasco has taught directing at USC and the LA Film School, and screenwriting at Pomona College as the Moseley Fellow in Creative Writing. Carrasco is a tenured film professor at Santa Monica College, where he is founder and Head of the Film Production Program, featured in Variety magazine. Carrasco has been a guest film director at CinemadaMare in Italy, along with directors Margarethe von Trotta, Paolo Sorrentino, and Krzysztof Zanussi. His critical essays have been published by the Los Angeles Times, the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), and The Nation Books, among others.

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