The film stars Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier

The Venice Film Festival seems to have found the most controversial film of the year.

The Painted Bird prompted walkouts from audience members at the festival after graphic scenes of violence, sexual assault, bestiality and mutilation, according to review by Xan Brooks for The Guardian.

Starring Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier, the film follows a nameless Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) left in the care of an elderly lady by his parents during World War II.

When the woman dies, the boy is left to wander from village to village where he inevitably ends up encountering different malevolent characters throughout the film.

A scene depicting a man gouging the eyes of a teenage boy prompted the first walkout, which was followed by another when another character faced a gory and violent death on screen, according to Brooks.

The Painted Bird
Petr Kotlar in The Painted Bird
| Credit: Courtesy of Celluloid Dreams

“One day, they’ll make a film about the first public screening of The Painted Bird,” Brooks wrote in his review. “It will feature the man who fell full-length on the steps in his effort to escape and the well-dressed woman who became so frantic to get out that she hit the stranger in the next seat.”

He continued, “The centerpiece will be the moment 12 viewers broke for the doors only to discover that the exit had been locked.”

The Financial Times also reported the film “prompted mass walkouts even among the battle-hardened critics paid to sit through anything.”

On Twitter, International Film Critique wrote, “Václav Marhoul’s #ThePaintedBird is a brutal, harrowing & merciless 3 hour journey. Filled with gruesome acts varying from extreme beatings, brutal rape scenes and eye gouging. Yep, THERE WERE WALKOUTS! Great directing & superb black & white 35mm cinematography. #Venezia76.”

Another audience member tweeted, “Harvey Keitel is as far away from his jolly car insurance adverts as imaginable in holocaust metaphor pic #thepaintedbird. The largest number of walkouts I’ve witnessed this year. Certain to attain MASSIVE notoriety yet also likely to win the main prize. #Venezia76.”

“And after the bottle scene some people had enough and started leaving. #ThePaintedBird is not for the faint-hearted, just like Jerzy Kłosiński’s novel,” someone else wrote. “It surely is a traumatic film abut generations’ trauma. But it’s beautiful in very twisted way #Venezia76.”

In the film, the boy undergoes torture, rape and witnesses several instances of violence. Skargård plays a sympathetic Nazi officer who is hesitant to kill the boy under orders once it is made clear he is Jewish. Keitel plays a Catholic priest who delivers the boy to a pedophile (Julian Sands).

The film is based on the 1965 novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosinski, who initially claimed the book was autobiographical although that was later discredited.