Originally posted on Criterion Cast on December 30th, 2011
There are a multitude of ways in which we as humans deal with the world and the various tragedies that can surround us. There are countless instances in which cultures or societies are taken over by ensuing horrors of all kinds. One way of coping is using art, skill and creativity to depict what one sees with complexity, symbolism and catharsis. Not many films deal with how humans have always used art to cope and reconcile what we experience and see. The Mill and the Cross uses a recent medium to show how an older medium lends itself to creative expression that gives desperately needed meaning to the inconsolable atrocities that can occur.
The Mill and the Cross does this in a most unconventional way that at times feels like a filmed piece of performance art, if not for the carefully mapped out visuals on display. I know very little about Polish director Lech Majewski, but it is apparent that he has considerable experience working in both the theater and with installation pieces.
It is 16th century Flanders where Spain occupies and religious persecution reigns. The film renders art becoming, in the form of Pieter Bruegel’s epic painting “The Way to Cavalry”. The piece is filled to the brim with activity and townsfolk with 500 figures occupying the spatial landscape. Among the acts within the painting there is a representation of Christ’s procession. In the film, we witness the daily subdued goings-on of the people who will be represented in the painting. Among the mundane, atrocities committed by the Spaniards are a regular occurrence and are shown with the same hushed quotidian scrutiny. Bruegel, as played by Rutger Hauer, watches and speaks, describing his painting as we see its various elements come together. Michael York plays his patron and Charlotte Rampling plays Bruegel’s mother and his model for the Virgin Mary.
There are several nameless characters that go about their business, unknowingly contributing their collective experience to the canvas as Bruegel sees it. The film is almost entirely without dialogue, with visuals being the communicative language. This aligns the film with Bruegel’s painting which also, it goes without saying, communicates through its vision. Using different technologies such as green screen and matte backgrounds, The Mill and the Cross transfers how Bruegel saw everything around him and makes it the actual physical text of the film; almost like a spin-off of the painting. But The Mill and the Cross ponders the act of a representation of a representation. Film, by nature, represents but arguably does not present. Using the power of filmic representation, Majewski shows a progressive literalization of Bruegel’s eventual representation of Flanders in “The Way to Cavalry”.
The point of depicting these characters, nameless and otherwise, is not to get inside their heads. It is to show how environment of people, landscape, circumstance and persecution get filtered by inspiration into timeless expression and catharsis.
The Mill and the Cross is filled with stunning contemplative visuals. As a whole, it is unlike anything else and there is plenty to admire and relish. I preferred the segments without the minimal dialogue. What little there was felt didactic and clunky. The film also felt too forcibly stretched to feature-length. Its a rewarding and beautiful film, but it also strains to keep itself afloat for the entire running time.
The film gets you thinking about how art comes to be with the where, the what and the why. It exists in artistic limbo, inviting us to explore motivations and the surface of historical context. Awkward chunks of execution aside, this is for the most part a bewitching rumination.