Film Reviews

THE MILL & THE CROSS

By • Sep 28th, 2011 •

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THE MILL & THE CROSS is about the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but in terms of content and style, it is anything but a biopic. Although there is an actor portraying Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) and we watch as the artist and his contemporaries go through some of the mundane, and the dangerous, events of their daily lives, this is not a dramatic exposé of an artist’s quest for inspiration and/or recognition. This film, like the book that inspired it, is a meditation about the creation and meaning of one particular painting, “The Road to Calvary,” Bruegel’s rendering of Jesus Christ’s journey to the place of his execution.

If you have never seen this famous painting (and you will see it many times, from many different perspectives, if you watch this movie), it depicts a large crowd of people who have come to watch as Christ and two ordinary thieves are executed. In fact, before we even see the opening credits, we see Bruegel and his patron Jonghelinck (Michael York), walking through what seems to be a life-sized, life-filled model of the composition. Bruegel begins to explain the picture’s meaning. The people are in a rather fantastical landscape, which includes an improbably high and twisty rock outcropping, at the top of which a windmill sits (God’s vantage point). Bruegel explains that he has dressed the people in the red uniforms of 16th century Spanish soldiers, and in the peasant costumes of his homeland, rather than in the garb of 33 AD, because he wants to allude to the current oppression of Flanders. These forces form an impressive crowd of the busy and the self involved, as they march, straggle, and throng toward the right, barren side of the canvas–the execution site. Almost obscured, and certainly ignored, by the crowd, the Christ figure struggles to carry the instrument of his own demise.

The film interweaves the events of the painting with the daily lives of Bruegel’s contemporaries. In the early dawn, we watch as torch-carrying peasants cut down the tree that will become the Cross. We observe Bruegel when he chances upon a spider’s web, the circular construction of which will prove the basis for the architecture of his composition. We laugh at clownish figures, who prance and play goofy tunes on their quaint instruments, until we realize that their comic antics are harbingers of doom. They precede the soldiers, who arrive at a gallop, and with arbitrary cruelty chase down one man, beat him to a pulp, and string him up on a Catherine wheel. As the crows peck out his eyes, his wife and a young calf wander helplessly below, both bawling. While this tragedy transpires, Bruegel’s young children squabble, make a mess, and create a chorus of naughty fart sounds, and we, the audience, are privy to the internal monologue of Mary (Charlotte Rampling), the mother of the soon to be martyred man, as she reassures herself that her son will not be murdered.

Although the story does follow a timely sequence of events (pre- to post-execution) Majewski does not provide us with a conventional story arc. What he does is to reveal this picture and its symbolism, and to affirm its lyrical but unsentimental view of human existence. To achieve that, he and his collaborators created what they call a tapestry, a film about art that artfully weaves together multiple locations, actors against blue screens, and CGI. The film is put together so that, imagistically, the brutal and the ordinary always abut what is lovely and good.

On the aural end of things, with the exception of the characters played by York, Hauer, and Rampling, the characters do not speak, and yet, Majewski is committed to real sounds–trees being cut down, ducks clucking, millstones churning, bells ringing–and these provide a powerful, yet noninvasive, soundtrack.

Ultimately, this nearly wordless film reveals a good deal to us of the “bruegelian approach” that the filmmaker embraces. “The wind blows, the wheel turns, and the gigantic merry-go-round of life moves on.”

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