This post is going to be about an art-history lesson and a spiritual exercise disguised as a movie. I'm talking about "The Mill and The Cross", one of the most interesting films of 2011, directed by Lech Majewski and starring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York. It is inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting "The Way to Calvary", and based on Michael Francis Gibson's book "The Mill and the Cross".
Bruegel's painting (you can see it down below) has Jesus in the center, hoisting his own cross towards his crucifixion. The exact moment the painting captures is Simon helping him with the cross because Jesus stumbled and fell down. Everyone's eyes are on Simon at this time instead of Jesus. In the foreground is Mary. She is helpless as she sits on the sidelines because there is nothing she can do to prevent the red tunics from carrying out their mission. The rest of the painting shows hundreds of peasants either watching the proceeding or going about their chores. Children play games on the hillside, a local peddler sells his bread, a horn player dances around, and above them all, the miller observes from his windmill.
Now, have you ever wondered how would it be to enter the other side of the canvas, to be inside of the painting? Because this is exactly what this movie does! The Mill and the Cross is a movie inside of a painting, as the filmmakers actually take you inside of the painting itself , and not only inside of Bruegel's work of art, but also inside the politics of the era with important parallels to our own time.
The film opens in complete darkness and the sound of footsteps echo as if in a great hall. The first image revealed is a hyper-realized shot of people in costumes typical of those that populate Bruegel’s exquisitely detailed painting. From their arrangement to the tone of their props, the evocation of Bruegel is undeniable. They stand very still as Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) walks among them while scribbling in his giant sketch book during a breathtaking tracking shot that almost makes Bruegel’s speech hard to hear. At his side is Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), a patron of Bruegel’s. The painter explains the idea behind the work to Jonghelinck, which sets up the story that is about to unfold by the actors.
The movie is at its best when Bruegel is explaining his inspiration and how he plans to incorporate all of his ideas and scenes into one large landscape. He looks closely at a spider's web to discover where the anchor point on his painting will be and how to section off the rest of the action. Just as intriguing are the scenes of everyday life in 1564 Flanders. A young couple gets out of bed and takes their cow to the field for the day. Bruegel's wife and children wake up after him and get ready for breakfast which is a small slice of bread. The miller and his apprentice ready the mill for the day's tasks and the large wheels and gears moan into action. Rutger Hauer is excellent as Pieter Bruegel and he appears to be serving his artistic penance to atone for his ridiculous participation in Hobo with a Shotgun earlier this year. Michael York is taking a break from his voice over work and TV appearances to finally show up in a serious film again. Charlotte Rampling is sort of the odd man out here. Her screen time is sparse as Mary and she spends most of the time misty eyed observing all of the peasant movements around her.
"The Mill and the Cross" is almost nonverbal, it contains very little dialogue, most of the film is as hushed as a cathedral at midnight . We get bits and pieces of story, but no major plot other than the painting and its scenes/images coming to life. There is also no action in the traditional sense, so if you get bored in movies without guns, romantic shit, and screaming, stay away! But if you have a minimum interest in painting and art history, then this is a movie-going experience you definitely must see!