Not every film screens at the Louvre, but when Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross made its French debut there ten days after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival it was only fitting. An investigation into Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting "The Way to Calvary," Majewski's film is a stunning piece of art in its own right. At once a look at an artist's process, a close examination of an individual work of art, and a history lesson, its rigor will make it a hard sell beyond a core audience of art lovers, but its magnificent images demand to be seen on the big screen.
Bruegel's 1564 canvas, a teeming mass of over 500 figures, relocates Christ's Passion to Flanders and replaces the Roman soldiers with the Spaniards then carrying out the Inquisition with cruel efficiency. In adapting co-screenwriter Michael Francis Gibson's book of the same name, Majewski focuses on a handful of figures. Some are merely people going about their daily routines. Others are caught in the madness, such as a peasant gone to market who's beaten by the militia and left to die on the wheel (a favored torture device of the Inquisition). Then there is Christ with his cross, urged toward Calvary and his execution while his grieving mother Mary (Charlotte Rampling whose eyes speak volumes) follows her son to his destiny.
Looming above all is the grain mill, while darting in and out are Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) and his friend and collector, Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), the artist explaining the intent of his work as he creates it. He likens the intricacy of what he is doing to a spider building its web. "It should be large enough to hold everything," he says and further explains that the most important element of the painting is hidden, a mystery for the viewer to tease out.
In many ways, The Mill and the Cross is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway's 2008 documentary Rembrandt's J'Accuse, but as good as that was, Majewski's film is more intriguing and playful, infused with the filmmaker's evident passion for his subject. Visually, it is a triumph. The digitally shot production employed three elements to better enable the viewer to "enter" Bruegel's painting. Majewski shot on location in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and New Zealand, places he found that resembled the landscapes in the painting, sometimes filming with actors and sometimes only shooting landscapes. He painted a large canvas of the work. Finally, he shot actors in front of a blue screen and combined that footage with other elements. This is a 2D film that feels three dimensional, immersing the audience in Breugel's universe. The effect is nothing short of spectacular, an irresistible peek into an artist's work and his times.
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Cast: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling
Director: Lech Majewski
Screenwriter: Michael Francis Gibson, Lech Majewski
Producer: Lech Majewski, Dorota Roszkowska, Freddy Olsson
Running time: 97 min
Release date: Unset