Cult Cinema: The Mill And The Cross

Andrew reviews The Mill and the Cross.

"My name is Simon and I like to
do drawings."
With most art classes, lectures and museum tours, the professor or resident guide will impart to his pupils at some point the best way to understand an artist is to lose yourself within their paintings.  This could mean studying their work for hours on end or researching their lives through biographical renderings, either literary or cinematic. If you stare at a painting long enough, your mind may deceive you into thinking what you're seeing has movement.  Further still, the image itself might not be completely abstract and possibly has an underlying sociopolitical purpose. 

In an attempt answer the questions of the validity of art and give life to the period with which the painting was illustrated, Polish artist and first-time director Lech Majewski transports us quite literally inside a 16th century painting with his art-history hybrid The Mill and the Cross.

Rendered with elaborate CGI and period costumes, The Mill and the Cross creates an entire world and society of 16th century Flanders as imagined by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Rutger Hauer) with his subversive take on the crucifixion, The Way to Cavalry.  Loosely based on a biography by Michael Francis Gibson with Majewski's own visual interpretation, the film's locus is The Way to Cavalry with many of its inhabitants carrying out their daily lives.  The film is loaded with static yet sublime vistas casually mixing presently shot footage of people with elaborate backgrounds drawn directly from The Way to Cavalry.  Not since Akira Kurosawa's Dreams and it's Crows segment with a young Kurosawa running through the painted landscapes of Vincent Van Gogh has a film come this close to bringing a still painting to vivid, organic life. 

"Up on these stilts, I can't smell Rutger Hauer at all."

Throughout the film, we pull back to Bruegel in the act of sketching his masterwork, explaining its purpose carefully to wealthy patron Nicholaes Jonghelinck (Michael York).  Bruegel explains contrary to ordinary renderings of the crucifixion, God will take the place of the miller, with his heavenly mill atop a high mountain regarding the lives below.  Intended to comment on social indifference to violence of the period such as the Spanish militia and its frequent murder of Protestants, the painting and film stage the crucifixion within the middle of the madness.  It's as though Bruegel is saying the world has forgotten Christianity and it is man's nature to be violent and cruel.  At the same time, however, Majewski suggests with Christ rising on the third day there is still hope for humanity and goodness.  Without spoiling plot details of this overtly plotless cinematic swan dive into the heart of The Way to Cavalry, The Mill and the Cross ends inside a museum to regard the actual painting firsthand.  While at the end of the day it's just a painting to stare at and regard, Majewski prefaced this reminder with a truly unique journey into what the world depicted within it may have looked and felt like.

Average moviegoers will find this deliberately slow paced meditation on the meaning of artistic expression painfully dull or flat in terms of dynamic storytelling.  Whether this unique retelling of the crucifixion as seen through the painting of an important 16th century artist is your cup of tea or not depends on your patience and penchant for lush, impossibly beautiful vistas.  Then again, anyone aspiring to be an artist will find this deep investigation into the heart of The Way to Cavalry to be an awe inspiring experience and a valuable lesson on the interpretation of art.  To many, it will simply be another image in the age of our ever increasing interactivity.  But to others, The Mill and the Cross speaks to the notion of modern art's inextricable link to life itself and the importance of art's contribution to history.  It's also, for all intents and purposes, one of the most beautiful films you will ever lay eyes on, period.

-Andrew Kotwicki