The Mill and the Cross
A look inside a Bruegel master- work
"The Mill and the Cross’’ captures the wish that some of us have had while standing in front of a great painting. What hangs before us is so striking, beautiful, strange, vast, horrifying, ethereal, lifelike - so alive - that we’re desperate to enter the other side of the canvas, to be inside the painting.
The Polish visual artist Lech Majewski treats Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Way to Calvary’’ like a still frame from an unmade movie. Bruegel’s 1564 painting was more or less remaking Raphael’s “Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary’’ from the early part of the 16th century; Bruegel transplanted Christ’s Passion to Low Country Flanders and expanded the painting’s scope to include several hundred characters - peasants, merchants, soldiers, all heading to Golgotha for the crucifixion.
Majewski and his collaborator, the art historian Michael Francis Gibson, embellish and intertwine a few of these characters so that Bruegel’s panorama becomes theirs. Visually, the film is a collection of tableaux vivantes that encompasses everything from the flogging of Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him, and Mary (Charlotte Rampling) serenely waiting to hold her son, to the Counter Reformation anti-heretical punishments that were rampant under Philip II of Spain.
The effect of it all isn’t unlike Alexander Sokurov’s Steadicam-through-the-Hermitage adventure “Russian Ark,’’ in which the museum’s works come to life. But here the museum is an afterthought.
As Bruegel, Rutger Hauer perches himself above the grassy lowland, tools in hand, watching the passing villagers. He shows an art-collector friend (Michael York) a blueprint of what he plans to paint. Below, the camera tracks the men and women being outfitted in the costumes they’ll model for him. Once, Bruegel finds himself awestruck by the artistry and labor of a spider’s web. “I shall work like the spider I saw this morning,’’ he vows.
Without ever having to overstate what’s afoot, Majewski makes clear how much art has always arisen from the combination of politics and religion - and how everyday rituals embody them. To the rear of the finished painting, way up high, on an incredible protrusion of rock, sits - impossibly - a working windmill that, in the film, produces flour for the village’s daily bread and is the site of some of the most alluring shots. In the mill’s loft, enormous wood gears crank, and down below pellets of grain become powder. That machine on the rock is majestic, uniquely comforting, and, in one shot of the mill’s fan, eerily divine.
It’s misleading to praise a movie for being excessively gorgeous or intensely visual, as if it’s unique to tell a story purely through images - doing so just means you understand what else movies can do. But Majewski compounds that experience with superb art direction, exquisite cinematography, and computer effects. Color space, for instance, has been shifted to look even more painterly than Bruegel’s original. The soldiers’ red tunics, here, are intensely so, and velvet looks like some animal’s oversaturated pelt.
Not enough can be said about lighting, a motionless camera, and the imagination used to create and foster the illusion that you’ve never seen anything like what you’re being shown - that you’ve never seen a movie before, even when all you’re seeing is four or five kids making fart sounds by flapping their arms. In life, that’d be annoying. Here, amid all this painstaking beauty, it’s music.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@wesley_morris.