Thursday, February 16, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—The Mill & the Cross (2011) ****

NR, 92 min.
Director: Lech Majewski
Writers: Lech Majewski, Michael Francis Gibson (also book), Pieter Bruegel (painting “The Procession to Calvary”)
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling, Joanna Litwin, Dorota Lis, Marian Makula

“The Mill & the Cross” is a difficult film to describe. It is like no other film I’ve ever seen. It attempts to tell the story of the inspiration behind Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting “The Procession to Calvary”. I don’t know if the story it tells is based on any facts about Bruegel or not. I wouldn’t guess so. Not because it seems unlikely, but because it is so magical in the way it tells its story.

The production is designed to appear as if it is literally unfolding on Bruegel’s canvas. Bruegel himself appears as a subject in his own painting. Weathered tough guy Rutger Hauer plays him in a surprisingly gentle role. This is one of only three speaking roles in the film. Michael York plays Bruegel’s patron, a lord of the city. Charlotte Rampling plays the painting’s version of the Virgin Mary.

Considering that the painting isn’t an entirely realistic landscape, the director and his production team do a wonderful job finding locations that seem an exaggeration of reality to simulate the landscape of the painting. Much of the rest of the picture texturing is accomplished through CGI.

Recreating the painting isn’t really what the movie is about, however. What director Lech Majewski has set out to do is truly explore what is at the heart of the inspiration of art, and even more specifically, religious-based images in art. Although the painting is about Jesus’s trek to Calvary to be crucified, Bruegel characterized it with the same Flemish landscape and clothing that was his signature as a renaissance artist commenting on peasant life.

The movie supposes that much of Bruegel’s inspiration came from the public executions by the church that had become commonplace in Flanders at the time. Majewski follows a couple of lovers who fall victim to this practice. He also shows us Bruegel’s family, his wife who spends her days toiling to keep house with a large number of terribly behaved children.

The movie asks deep questions about religion and faith that must’ve been similar to the questions that inspired Bruegel to paint his “Procession”. Is the miller a version of God who watches over his son in his hour of need, but doesn’t intervene, for the sake of humanity? Why, when Christ has fallen to the ground with his cross, is he not the focal point of the painting? The movie does good to ask these questions, but leaves them for us to answer for ourselves, as any great piece of art does. As Bruegel’s own painting does.

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