DVD Review: ‘The Mill and the Cross’ Deconstructs Imagery of Audacious Painting

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CHICAGO – As an aesthetically exquisite experiment, Lech Majewski’s “The Mill & the Cross” is a nearly unparalleled achievement. Though other pictures, such as Peter Greenaway’s highly entertaining “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse,” have deconstructed paintings through cinematic essays built primarily on re-enactments, none have had the hypnotic tone and majesty of this picture.

Majewski explores the world of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting, “The Way to Calvary,” through a series of near-wordless vignettes. The dialogue is often heard in voice-over, and much of it belongs to Bruegel himself (played by Rutger Hauer) as he walks through his troubling imagery while accompanied by his devoted patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Each scene unfolds like the sort of daydream museum visitors may have as they become mesmerized by the overwhelming scope and depth of an artist’s vision captured on a single canvas.

HollywoodChicago.com DVD Rating: 4.0/5.0
DVD Rating: 4.0/5.0

It’s nearly impossible to look at “The Way to Calvary” without becoming instantly transfixed. It shows Christ in the midst of a crowd populated by roughly 500 figures, with a crestfallen Virgin Mary at the forefront. In the film, Bruegel likens his painting to a spiderweb, with Christ serving as the “anchoring point” of the picture. Yet he’s merely one of many condemned figures walking to their execution, and his face remains unseen. When Jonghelinck asks Bruegel why he chose to obscure Christ’s features, the artist replies, “Because he is the most important detail.” The restraint with which Majewski depicts Christ’s suffering is infinitely more effective than the soulless torture porn in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ.”

One of the most provocative elements of the picture is its depiction of the monstrous Spanish militia, outfitted in blood-red tunics. They famously terrorized 16th century Flanders, Belgium, by putting heretics to death in gruesome rituals. In Bruegel’s painting, the militia is responsible for the death of Christ as well as various Protestants. If Christ is the painting’s central figure, then the god-like perspective represented by the mill is its axis. Every single shot in the film has the meticulous composition of a framed masterwork, and Majewski (along with co-cinematographer Adam Sikora) frequently pans from left to right, as if his lens was limited to the rectangular confines of a canvas.

The Mill and the Cross was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 31, 2012.
The Mill and the Cross was released on Blu-ray and DVD on Jan. 31, 2012.
Photo credit: Kino Lorber

At once tender, brutal and quietly provocative, “The Mill & the Cross” aims to capture Bruegel’s message that the parade of life manages to continue even in the aftermath of a grave tragedy. As the Virgin Mary, Charlotte Rampling conveys an eternity of despair with her beautifully mournful eyes. Whenever the film’s artifice and two-dimensional backdrops ring distressingly hollow, Hauer steps in to put them in artistic context. One of the film’s few notable distractions is York, who insisted to read his dialogue rather than deliver it in voice over, thus resulting in a couple instances of jarringly self-conscious exposition. Of course, that’s hardly a problem in a film that functions as more of a cinematic essay than an artfully composed narrative. When Majewski periodically “freezes” the action, some figures subtly remain in motion while others are stagnant. This technique uncannily recreates the magical feeling one has in front of a lifelike painting, where you could swear one of the figures had moved in your peripheral vision.
 
“The Mill & the Cross” is presented in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks splendid on DVD, though the visuals are guaranteed to have even more impact in the film’s Blu-ray edition. It’s a shame that neither disc contains subtitles for hard-of-hearing art enthusiasts. Oddly enough, the 44-minute behind-the-scenes documentary contains wall-to-wall subtitles for even the English-speaking subjects. Majewski says he was attracted to the material because he respected Bruegel’s way of thinking, and wanted to capture his philosophy onscreen. Art critic Michael Francis Gibson (no relation to Mel) had written a book of the same name back in 2000, and proposed that Majewski make a documentary based on his research. Yet the director wanted to explore the painting from within, and his disinterest in conventional narratives led him to make a sprawling yet contemplative piece similar in spirit to Raúl Ruiz’s “Mysteries of Lisbon.”

In the documentary, Majewski further deconstructs the painting’s Judeo-Christian symbolism, while revealing his intention to utilize a metalanguage similar to that of Fellini. The HD photography allowed him the freedom to experiment with the images in post-production. During an additional 19-minute interview with Majewski, in which he speaks surprisingly good English, the director talks about the numerous digital layers used to create the imagery. By jumping between the perspectives of various characters, Majewski was attempting to visualize the seven points of view represented in the painting.

“The subjects are not posing,” Majewski says. “They’re being caught red-handed.” That statement may explain why the viewer’s gaze tends to feel voyeuristic throughout the picture, such as when the camera rests on a woman disrobing in her bedroom or a corpse getting mutilated by vultures. If Majewski hadn’t taken such an intellectual approach to the material, this may have been a very tough film to watch. Yet despite its cold abstractness, the film does ultimately resonate on an emotional level. Majewski inhabited the role of a spiritist rather than a historian while entering the mind of Bruegel. His belief that the “dead have more to say than the living” has led him to breathe new life into ancient imagery that deserves to be viewed under a magnifying glass.

‘The Mill & the Cross’ is released by Kino Lorber and stars Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York. It was written by Michael Francis Gibson and Lech Majewski and directed by Lech Majewski. It was released on Jan. 31, 2012. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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