An extraordinary imaginative leap, Lech Majewski's "The Mill and the Cross" combines old and new technologies allowing the viewer to live inside the painting -- Flemish master Pieter Bruegel's 1564 "The Procession to Calvary," an epic canvas depicting both Christ's crucifixion and the artist's homeland brutalization by Spanish occupiers. Neither conventional costume drama nor abstract objet d'art, this visually ravishing, surprisingly beguiling gamble won't fit any standard arthouse niche. Still it could prove the Polish helmer's belated international breakthrough, especially if marketed as a unique, immersive museum-meets-cinema experience a la Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark."
Opening setpiece stages the complex painting via a combination of live actors (and horses), bluescreen effects and 2D backdrops. Its crowded landscape features some 500 historical, religious, contemporary and symbolic figures, with biblical travails depicted alongside sufferings of Flemish citizens persecuted by representatives of the Spanish inquisition. We continually revisit this tableau, in whole and part, while other scenes are frequently modeled on several other paintings by Bruegel the Elder.
Representing God atop an enormous windmill tower is a miller (Marian Makula) impassively regarding various scenes from his lofty perch. They include the seizure by red-coated militia of one peasant (Mateusz Machnik) who is tortured and killed for presumed heresy. Later, another hapless soul is literally crucified for some other crime.
Periodically commenting sorrowfully on this state of affairs -- either alone or in conversation with the artist -- is a wealthy burgher (Michael York) appalled by the invaders' misrule, even if he himself seems immune from harm. A mother (Charlotte Rampling) whose son has been dragged off to slaughter delivers in voiceover lamentations that are more personal and poetic; she is also the painting's Virgin Mary model. Meanwhile, Breughel himself (Rutger Hauer) bemusedly explains the hidden meanings scattered throughout his masterwork, often in the form of conflated religious allegory and political protest.
Not everything is grim here, however. Indeed much of "The Mill and the Cross" delights, with episodes of rambunctious humor among some rural ne'er-do-wells and a roving pack of joyfully rowdy children. Life does go on, despite the climate of fear and cruelty. . . .
It is impossible to hang a pat label on Mill. Though it screened as part of Sundance’s New Frontier track for more experimental work, such a rubric really does not fit Majewski’s film. It certainly is not non-narrative filmmaking, since it encompasses the greatest story ever told. However, it completely challenges linear notions of time, incorporating Christ’s Passion and the world of 1564 Flanders, in which Bruegel and Jongelinck are simultaneous observers and active participants.
Years in the making, Mill is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. Majewski represents the social continuum of Sixteenth Century Flanders, recreating the mean living conditions of the peasants, the clean, unadorned quarters of the relatively middle class Bruegel, and the privileged environment of the well-to-do Jongelinck. Majewski’s visuals are often arresting, like the scenes of art director Stanislaw Porczyk’s towering mill, which resembles the enormous set pieces of Terry Gilliam films. Perhaps most stunning are the wide shots of the Cavalry landscape, with the figures literally coming alive on Bruegel’s canvas. Yet, Majewski also captures moments of both tender intimacy and graphic torture, rendered with powerful immediacy.
Indeed, the wealthy collector clearly serves as the conscience of the film, decrying the capricious religious persecution that was a fact of life for Flanders under the Militia. Despite the almost overwhelming visual sweep of the film, Michael York gives a finely tuned performance as Jongelinck that really sneaks up on viewers. Rutger Hauer (worlds away from his other Sundance film Hobo with a Shotgun) also brings a forceful heft to the rather mysterious artist. . . .