The Mill and the Cross paints more than just a pretty picture
Starring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling, and Michael York. Unrated. Opens Sunday, January 8, at the Vancity Theatre
Many a moviegoer unfavourably compares certain films to watching paint dry, so it’s always risky to undertake tales of artists and their milieu. In this case, the process that went into a landmark painting—both the whatness and the whyness of it—brings a fantastic amount of illumination to the screen. The singular vision of Lech Majewski, a Polish artist and director who has long worked in English, The Mill and the Cross is a dramatization of events, landmarks, spiritual yearnings, and nasty politics that went into The Way to Calvary, a totemic 1564 painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
Here we see the Flemish artist, played with controlled force by Dutch-born Rutger Hauer, plotting the massive work and explaining his allegorical and slightly twisted vision to a wealthy patron (Michael York, rather hammy). It’s apparent in Calvary itself that Brueghel has moved the crucifixion of Jesus to his own place and time, with everyday Flemings in the crowd and red-suited Spaniards—then occupying his country and persecuting Protestant “heretics”—in charge of the torment. God is represented by a bearded miller who oversees the complexity of our behaviour from a windmill perched atop an improbably dramatic outcropping.
The painter’s explanations, like the musings of an older woman (Charlotte Rampling) whose son falls victim to the Spanish Inquisition, add up to more dialogue than the movie actually needs. Indeed, these are among the very few words uttered in a story that, aside from some spooky sound design and medieval music, is told through spectacular imagery—as was true when paintings filled social needs later served by books, plays, photographs, movies, and television.
The film was shot entirely in Poland, where Majewski placed his actors before giant green screens, later to be filled with his own, colour-rich interpretations of details from this and other Brueghel paintings. His approach—combining high-tech and utterly analogue techniques—perfectly captures the artist’s strangely dreamlike sense of perspective, with some effects flat and others eye-poppingly present. You leave this Cross feeling the same way about the pageant of human history; some things seem hazily distant while others feel closer than ever. Above all, it’s a reminder that paint never really dries.
Watch the trailer for The Mill and the Cross.