Inside a Masterpiece, and Creating a New One in The Mill and the Cross

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The Mill and the Cross
Directed by Lech Majewski
Kino Lorber
Opens September 14, Film Forum

An extraordinary example of both art-historical interpretation and CGI as passport to unknown lands, The Mill and the Cross, based on a book by Michael Francis Gibson, is a moving-image tribute to the still image, with its ability to “wrestle the senseless moment to the ground.” The subject is The Way to Calvary, the year 1564, the place Flanders. The signer of that vast canvas, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Rutger Hauer), takes a hillside vantage to scout out faces for his painting. Those faces are in turn seen individuated from the swarm below, in vignettes depicting the daily life of the 16th century, which mingles with the painting’s more fantastic elements (a windmill on a rocky precipice, the scourging of Christ), as it does in Bruegel’s depiction. The film’s little dialogue comes from the artist, his patron (Michael York), and the Mary figure (Charlotte Rampling); the soundtrack is given mostly to the musique concrete of clogs against stone, the caw of carrion birds, and the lash of the whip, for Bruegel’s Flanders is the property of the Spaniards, no less casually violent in the Old World than in the New. Against this context, Bruegel’s transplanting of the crucifixion scene to his present day is explained as a sort of protest art—and an altogether more philosophical idea of human suffering.

 
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