The Mill and the Cross
By Lech Majewski, 2011
If you have ever looked at paintings from centuries past and wondered what a particular scene would look like when brought to life, here is your chance. In Lech Majewski’s new film The Mill and the Cross, he attempts to understand and portray the meanings and decisions behind Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. Why is there a tree there? What does the mill itself represent? As a filmic answer to these questions and more, The Mill and the Cross is quite the success.
The film opens on a Flemish landscape. The camera pans along the setting, and in it we see a crowd of people including soldiers, peasants and a woman crying in the foreground. The characters hold their stances as still as they can, with a horse or a child occasionally coming out of his or her freeze. Soon the artist Bruegel enters with a colleague to discuss the scene at hand, the scene that will become his painting.
The Way to Calvary is a work depicting Jesus being persecuted amongst the people of Flanders in the 16th century. Flemish people accused of heresy were regularly executed during this time by the Catholic Spaniards ruling the land. Bruegel created this work as an allegory for the inhumane crimes he witnessed, and now Majewski has painted a wonderful portrait himself, being ever so insightful of the painting with his film.
Besides laying out the scene in the painting (the scenery is beautifully composed using a wonderful green screen effect that allows the actors to appear alive on Bruegel’s painted background), Majewski uses elements from the painting to display historical details from the time period. When we cut away from the live-action painting at the beginning of the film, we are taken to the mill that stands in the artwork's top corner. A couple wakes up in the early morning, they put on their wooden clogs and begin the laborious process of starting up the windmill. A man asleep on the floor is also awoken; he walks the exaggerated distance (the mill in the painting is perched atop a steep mountain peak) to the mill’s terrace, where he releases the mill's sails to begin the grinding of grain. Soon after, we are shown a young Flemish couple take their calf to market, only for the man to be apprehended by Spanish soldiers, beaten, then tied to a wheel which is subsequently perched atop a tall stick of wood so his bloodied body can be feasted on by crows. In The Way to Calvary, these barbaric devices are seen planted throughout the landscape.
Unlike anything I’ve seen before, The Mill and the Cross is quite special. It is part documentary, part drama, part history lesson and part art lesson, using a minimal amount of dialogue to share its knowledge. Maybe it isn’t for everyone, but if you are keen on learning and have patience for details, please seek this film out. Immediately after viewing the film I found myself hoping that the director would follow up with another investigation of a painting. I really hope so.
4 out of 5