With The Mill & The Cross, Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski has created an remarkable cinematographic work of art stunning in its technical brilliance of interwoven digitized landscapes, realism and intrigue.
The 92-minute film is based on Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting “The Way to Calvary.” The all-star cast features Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner/Ladyhawke) as Bruegel, Michael York (The Three Musketeers/Austin Powers) as Bruegel’s business associate Nicholaes Jonghelinck and Charlotte Rampling (Angel Heart/The Duchess) in the role of Mary.
Like many Biblical-inspired paintings of the Northern Renaissance period, The Mill & The Cross demands the viewer’s complete attention as even the smallest details are symbolic. And as is the case in these paintings, while the primary subject matter – the Crucifixion of Jesus here – mirrors our Western image of Christ, the landscape, buildings and people, however, are European, and in this instance a fantastical meld of Flanders (today Belgium/The Netherlands) and a mythical craggy mountain on which a windmill rests atop. The Mill, of course, represents heaven and the Miller is God, who grinds the bread of life and gazes downward over his dominion.
Majewski literally takes us inside Bruegel’s mind and into the painting itself. At times, the goings on in the work are somewhat freeze-framed as the artist enters the canvas to make adjustments to clothing. We see the original sketch from which the painting is derived and are given access to the intensions of the artist.
“My painting will have to tell many stories,” says the artist. And it does.
At the time of Bruegel’s work, Flanders was brutally occupied by Spain. In the painting, as well as the film, Spanish soldiers, cloaked in red tunics, are the oppressors and depict the Roman legions ruling Jerusalem. We gain insight into Bruegel’s view of the mercenaries terrorizing on horseback as they lash and beat a young man, who is then tied to a wagon wheel and the hoisted upon a tall pole until he dies and the ravens pluck out his eyes. The gruesomeness of the Spanish is also portrayed when a woman, condemned as a heretic, is buried alive. As told by Michael York, the King of Spain has “declared all heretics should be put to death.” It is a strange juxtaposition and yet explains the ironies and hypocrisies of the time.
The storyline of the Crucifixion – crown of thorns, carrying the cross through the streets, hanging of Judas – plays out towards the end of the film, just set in 16th century Europe.
Beyond the somber tone, minimal dialogue and stunning imagery, The Mill & The Cross demands the viewer’s thoughts. As the film ends, the completed painting is shown. As the camera slowly backs away, we see the painting hanging on the wall. As the lens further reverses and pans the room, we suddenly realize this is a museum piece exhibited with thousands of additional works of art. We are compelled to wonder, if so much detail and thought went into this one painting, then what about all of these other pieces. Not only do we want to view the movie immediately again, the film asks us to look more carefully at masterpieces on display in museums around the world. And that is the magic of The Mill & The Cross. It makes us think.