The Mill and the Cross (Oscilloscope Pictures, NR)

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The Mill and the Cross is worth your while if you have any interest in the art of cinema.



Every now and then a film comes along which is so unlike anything you have ever seen before that it’s hard to know how to describe it. The Mill and the Cross, a Polish-Swedish co-production co-written (with Michael Francis Gibson) and directed by Lech Majewski, is just such a picture. Although I’m not sure exactly how to place this film, I am sure about one thing: It’s worth your while if you have any interest in the art of cinema. The film of which it most reminds me is Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, so if you liked that one, then you’ll definitely want to give The Mill and the Cross a try.
The centerpiece of The Mill and the Cross is Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 masterpiece The Procession to Cavalry, a complex painting (reportedly, it contains more than 500 individual human figures) which sets Christ’s process to the crucifixion in Bruegel’s contemporary Flanders. The Procession not merely a religious painting, however, but also a social protest against the Spanish occupation of Flanders, and in particular against the Spanish Inquisition whose representatives spread terror throughout the occupied lands. Bruegel was not subtle in making this connection: In The Procession to Cavalry, the Roman soldiers who carry out Christ’s sentence are dressed in the red cloaks worn by the soldiers of the Inquisition.
The Mill and the Cross is set in a small Flemish village where Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) is working on The Procession, and the boundaries between life and art are repeatedly crossed, making this film both a period piece and an excursion into postmodernism. In the opening shot, we see the village residents costumed and arranged as if Bruegel were planning to paint The Procession from life, and in the closing scene, we see the painting as it hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In between, the two worlds cross over repeatedly as the ordinary life of the villagers becomes more and more that of the characters in the painting.
We hear Bruegel explain the meaning of his artistic choices (why the mill is portrayed atop a mountain; why you can barely see the ostensible subject, Christ bearing his cross, amidst all the activity), his patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York) discuss the predations of the Spanish occupiers and Mary (Charlotte Rampling) mourn the loss of her son (both in the 16th-century peasant world, and in the world of the painting, where she plays the Virgin Mary). We also see evidence of the cruelty of the Inquisition: The red-clad enforcers break a peasant on the wheel and bury a woman alive, for reasons which are never discussed, and when it comes time to re-enact the Crucifixion for the painting, it’s easy to the Inquisitors them in the roles of brutal Roman soldiers.
The experience of this film is primarily visual—dialogue is sparse and most of the sound is diegetic—which intensifies the impact of Majewski’s bold conceit. While the scenes of peasant life are naturalistic, for the main set piece of the painting, Majewski combines background photography shot in central Europe and New Zealand with painted backdrops and live figures posing before a green screen. It’s strangely beautiful and somewhat surreal, constantly challenging your notions of what is real and what is artificial. | Sarah Boslaugh
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