THE MILL AND THE CROSS – The Review
THE MILL AND THE CROSS is a handsomely presented speculative account of 16th century Belgian artist Pieter Bruegel’s creation of his The Way to Calvary. It’s a good film, something different, and something difficult to describe. There’s no real plot or conventional story arc, very little dialog, and even less drama. This film, adapted from a contemporary book of the same title by Michael Francis Gibson, is a meditation on the production and significance of this one particular painting which is a famous illustration of Jesus Christ’s journey to his place of execution. The painting itself, which is shown in all stages of development and from many angles, is dense – a depiction of the crucifixion populated by hundreds of peasants watching Christ being escorted through the crowd by the occupying Spaniards (instead of Roman soldiers – like the film, the painting is set during the painter’s lifetime), This was painted at a time when Spain was ruling Belgium and slaughtering its citizens.
Bruegel is played by Rutger Hauer who spends most the film either observing his models (including Charlotte Rampling as Mary) or explaining his artistic processes to the wealthy merchant (Michael York) who’d commissioned the painting. The citizens of the local village, when not posing for Bruegel, go about their mundane daily lives, but are always at risk from the cruel Spaniards. One poor man is beaten for no reason by the Spanish militia and left to slowly die tied to the top of a suspended wheel, the vultures pecking out his eyes (an image that makes it into the painting). At one point an accused witch is buried alive, but most of the routine and ordinary lives of these people are present matter-of-factly. A tree is cut down to make the cross, children play, a man makes bread, Brueghel is inspired by a spider spinning its web, and so on.
This may sound like patience-testing pretension, and it is, but it’s more focused and accessible than it sounds. While far from a fun time at the movies, THE MILL AND THE CROSS runs a reasonable 92 minutes and is worth seeing for its eye-popping visuals alone. The art direction is painstakingly developed and the composition of each frame is carefully composed. It’s a digitally shot production that employs some state of the art CGI effects to drop the audience into Bruegel’s painting. Director Lech Majewski shot on location in Poland, Austria, and New Zealand, where he found locations that resembled those in the painting’s landscape. Majewski himself then painted a giant canvas recreation of the art. Finally, he shot his actors on a green screen and pieced it all together in layers. The effect is striking, unlike anything I’ve seen before, but like a painting, THE MILL AND THE CROSS just sits there. It lacks any narrative momentum and its day-in-the-life presentation may only satisfy art history buffs and the most adventurous of movie-goers. Lech Majewski is a theatre director, writer, poet, and painter and while his film is magnificent, it’s not very cinematic. It’s hard sell performance art that defies ordinary critical standards. I admired it but am afraid most will find THE MILL AND THE CROSS a slow and frustrating film, akin to the experience of being dragged through a museum by an unpleasantly scented aunt who will never hang around long enough in one place to let you get a look at the really interesting exhibits.
3 of 5 Stars
THE MILL AND THE CROSS opens in St. Louis today (October 14th) at Landmark Theater’s Tivoli Theater
Pieter Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary