Art And Life, Entwined In 'The Mill And The Cross'

Drawing From Life: Rutger Hauer is the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Mill and the Cross, a stunner of an art film that takes inspiration from art, history and art history. i i

Drawing From Life: Rutger Hauer is the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Mill and the Cross, a stunner of an art film that takes inspiration from art, history and art history. Angelus Silesius hide caption

itoggle caption Angelus Silesius
Drawing From Life: Rutger Hauer is the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Mill and the Cross, a stunner of an art film that takes inspiration from art, history and art history.

Drawing From Life: Rutger Hauer is the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder in The Mill and the Cross, a stunner of an art film that takes inspiration from art, history and art history.

Angelus Silesius

The Mill And The Cross

  • Director: Lech Majewski
  • Genres: Drama
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Not rated; violence, torture, nudity, sexual situations

English, Flemish, Spanish

(Recommended)

Computer-generated imagery is often used to simulate the future in motion pictures, but the ravishing The Mill and the Cross uses it to replicate the past. If the result is a little stagey, that's entirely intentional: Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski places the movie at the center of not one but two frames, that of 16th-century Flanders and those of the canvases of its great painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The film begins with a vast tableau, as costumers dress models and Bruegel sketches the scene that will become The Way to Calvary. The official subject of that 1564 painting is the walk to the Crucifixion, but Jesus is barely visible among the hundreds of characters.

Rather, Bruegel used the biblical story to portray his own time and place, though not always literally: The painting's rocky crags are hardly typical of the Low Countries. (Majewski had to go to New Zealand to find mountains that resembled those in the artwork.) But the red-shirted men who take the place of Roman centurions were real enough: They were soldiers of the Spanish occupation, who punished the thought crimes of the Flemish Protestants.

The story, such as it is, was inspired by the work of art critic Michael Francis Gibson, who co-scripted with Majewski. The featured dialogue is spare, and allotted to only three characters: Bruegel (Rutger Hauer), his patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York) and the artist's model for the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling). They speak — or in Mary's case, think out loud — only occasionally. The peasants chatter in Flemish and the soldiers in Spanish, but their comments go unsubtitled.

Charlotte Rampling is the model for Bruegel's Virgin Mary in a film that revisits the story of the Passion in terms of the places and politics of the painter's time. i i

Charlotte Rampling is the model for Bruegel's Virgin Mary in a film that revisits the story of the Passion in terms of the places and politics of the painter's time. Angelus Silesius hide caption

itoggle caption Angelus Silesius
Charlotte Rampling is the model for Bruegel's Virgin Mary in a film that revisits the story of the Passion in terms of the places and politics of the painter's time.

Charlotte Rampling is the model for Bruegel's Virgin Mary in a film that revisits the story of the Passion in terms of the places and politics of the painter's time.

Angelus Silesius

To link the painting's subject to the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, the director conceives Rampling's Mary as the mother of a young man who's about to be crucified for supposed heresy. But the Spaniards' dogmatic oppression is just part of the thematic landscape, barely more central than the depiction of everyday peasant life.

While Jonghelinck denounces the red-shirts, Bruegel spends more time explaining his painting's symbolism. One tidbit: The miller, who watches the scene from his exceedingly high tower, is the painter's depiction of a decidedly non-interventionist God.

Other filmmakers have attempted to bring paintings to life, sometimes imagining a melodramatic back story for them, as in The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Some, notably Peter Greenaway, emulate the light and composition of Old Master canvases. Majewski's approach is closer to Greenaway's, although without his more gruesome flourishes. The Mill and the Cross does depict the torture and execution of several men, but it's far more restrained than, for instance, Mel Gibson's treatment of the path to Golgotha.

In The Lady and the Duke, set during the French Revolution, Eric Rohmer used painted cityscapes as a low-budget alternative to exterior sets. The Mill and the Cross is more visually complicated; it mixes live action with Bruegel's painting, and includes shots modeled on other of his canvases.

The effect is rich and complex, as befits the artist's ambitions. A painting "should be large enough to hold everything," Bruegel explains to Jonghelinck, and The Mill and the Cross is worthy of that ideal. The movie certainly doesn't contain everything, but its visual splendor argues for repeated viewings.

Majewski previously made a middling erotic thriller, The Garden of Earthly Delights, that riffed on that Hieronymus Bosch painting. The director was wise to stick closer to his source of inspiration this time. At the end of The Mill and the Cross, he films the painting in its Vienna museum home, pulling away and showing the hallway that leads away from the canvas. Transfixed viewers will not be ready to leave.

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