Films depict historical events, great works of literature, flippant works of pulp, true life accounts, biographies, and so on. How often do we get a film based on a painting? Maybe not often enough. Tarkovsky sort of did that in Andrei Rublev (1966), Svankmajer made some bizarre shorts in the style of Arcimbaldo, and Ivan Ivanov-Vano accomplished a truly staggering feat in his short The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971). All this to say that it can be done and it has proven to be a fascinating experiment when it is done. Why are not more paintings adapted to the big screen? After all, Fantasia (1940) and Allegro non Troppo (1976) are based on classical music compositions.
The Mill and the Cross (2011) was directed by Lech Majewski to cinematically represent Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, painted in 1564. Rutger Hauer (Ladyhawke, Blade Runner) plays Bruegel and Charlotte Rampling (The Verdict, Melancholia) and Michael York (The Three Musketeers, Austin Powers) costar. This is a strange sort of film. It doesn’t really flow like a conventional plot with readily understandable characters. It is less of a movie and more of a tranquil lingering in every beautifully realized square inch of the painting that inspired it.
We gradually move from one detail to another as we explore Bruegel’s work through different angles, richer context, and multi-historical meanings. It is as much a depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition as it is a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is a tough sell. It’s masquerading as a film, but really what Majewski is doing is forcing an audience to pay attention to the details. How many people wander a vast art museum, approach a great work, gaze at it for a few moments, take note of the artist, date, and materials used, and then simply move on? How many of us take the time to seriously consider and interact with seemingly trivial details in great works of art? The Way to Calvary is one of those biblical accounts where the people still look like they are living in the Renaissance or Medieval times. This could be for a few reasons. One might be that widespread knowledge of the fashions and architecture of bible times was not available. Another might be from the simple fact that Majewski seems to be saying that Bruegel might have been comparing the passion account with his own contemporary world.
It is a beautiful film. Many special effects shots are used to integrate the rich beauty of the Bruegel painting into the film. The film very much resembles a painting. Many shots even appear to composite actual elements of the original painting into the background. This gives The Mill and the Cross a very distinct look and feel. In addition to looking great, the film takes its time. As I’ve said, this movie likes to linger on subtle, strange imagery and just let the moving pieces perform their bottled dance. There is minimal dialogue and it moves slowly and deliberately and does not explain everything right away. You have to stick with it and trust Mejewski. I, for one, was never bored by this smooth and impressively visual film.
Watching it, I realize it will probably not be for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it and I think it is a noble experiment that leads one to appreciate art more and think differently about it. It is also a fine pseudo-account of the crucifixion narrative. I cannot tell if this is a better spiritual film or historical film…or maybe it is merely meant to be an art film. Whatever it is, it makes Bruegel’s painting come to life and delves deep into its obvious meanings and its more elusive symbolism along with carefully containing the era in which Bruegel lived. The Mill and the Cross truly teaches us that there is more in a grand old painting than what meets the eye in the first few moments one encounters it. There is much sophistication and beauty and pain and history. It’s a bold film no matter how you look at it and I think one that will be hard to forget.
For those with a keen eye for artistic imagery and a patience for the arts this is a must see. The Mill and the Cross is a pleasing art history lesson.