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Mill and the Cross, The (2011)

Release Date:
Friday, September 16, 2011

MPAA Rating:
NR

Genre:
Drama

Starring:
Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling

Written By:
Michael Francis Gibson

Director:
Lech Majewski

Synopsis:
Lech Majewski brings to life Pieter Bruegel's masterpiece The Way to Calvary, the story of the crucifixion, setting it in 16th century Flanders under brutal Spanish occupation. As epic events unfold, bawdy country living continues unabated: couples entwine, musicians play wind instruments, soldiers torment their enemies mercilessly, and children scurry about. Using sophisticated computer technology, the filmmaker creates a brilliantly complex and fascinating multi-layered dreamscape that melds iconic moments in art, history, and religion with the quotidian lives of ordinary people.

Mill and the Cross, The (2011) | Review

The Cross in the Midst of Life
Darrel Manson

Content Image
Imagine that you get to walk inside a painting. You see the various people as they go about their business. You watch them from the time they get up in the morning until they reach their assigned spot in the painting... and then continue on. That is the experience of The Mill and the Cross.

The painting in question is The Procession to Calvary, a 16th-Century work by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. The canvas (49" x 66") has many figures doing a variety of actions that townspeople of Flanders would do in everyday life. In the midst of this, almost hidden, is Jesus carrying his cross, being led to Calvary by Spanish soldiers. In the background overseeing all this is a mill high on a mountain.

Whereas the painting itself involves so much, there is a certain minimalism to the film. There are really only three speaking parts: Bruegel as he creates the picture, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, an Antwerp banker, who perhaps will buy the painting, and Mary, who doubles as the Mother of Christ and as the mother of a victim of the Spanish rule. These three only have a few lines scattered through the film. Bruegel explains the composition of the painting. Jonghelinck gives us the political situation the painting speaks to. Mary gives us the anguish that comes from the oppressive rule of Spain and the Inquisition.

When banker Jonghelinck speaks, he tells us that he and others in Antwerp believe that people of many beliefs can co-exist, but such "is not the opinion of the King of Spain, who is also our king as well, alas." In one episode of everyday life, we see the soldiers beat a man and then raise his body on a pole for the birds to feed on.

This is clearly a subversive painting. It proclaims that the Spanish, in the name of religion, are crucifying Christ anew. Perhaps this is why the cross, although central to the picture, is almost hidden by everything else. When we look at the overall picture, it doesn't seem to be religious, and then we discover a Passion scene in the midst of this and perceive that the Cross is present among the oppressed.

But its subversion is not limited to the political situation. That mill that is off in the distant heights, Bruegel tells us, is his portrayal of God, "the great miller of heaven grinding the bread of life and destiny." The God of this painting is distant and perhaps even indifferent to the suffering below. Certainly he does nothing to stop the suffering, but he may express sorrow at what he sees.

This is not a film that is built around plot, but has many stories going on. Travel between stories seeing a bit of daily life, then move to another story. We at times come back to see where earlier stories have led. There is a progression to the stories that may in some ways imitate what we would normally consider plot. This is true of the painting as well. The movement in the painting is all from left to right. On the left, Bruegel tells us, is the circle of life and the tree of life; on the right is the circle and tree of death. And, of course, dead center in this progression is Christ and his Cross.

The screenplay is a collaboration by Lech Majewski (who also directs) and Michael Francis Gibson (who wrote a book about this painting). Gibson has brought great insight to this painting so that the film can bring it to life—both figuratively and literally. But the film is not just an exploration and interpretation of an old painting. Just as Bruegel showed how events in his world represented Christ being crucified yet again, the film brings the cross to us so that we might consider where Christ is our world. Do we fail to see Him because we are looking at all the other parts of our daily life? Perhaps, but we also know that if we look, we will find Him in the midst of life.

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