The Mill and the Cross Dir. Lech Majewski

[Telewizja Polska; 2011]

Styles: art movie
Others: Vincent and Theo, Dreams, Andrei Rublev, The Garden of Earthly Delights

The idea of the painter as god’s craftsperson, diligently using talent to express faith and create undying works of devotion, is as antiquated in 2011 as the pace of The Mill and the Cross, which crawls across the screen at about the speed at which Flemish masters covered their canvasses. Yet set against the tired image of the tortured, complaining artist that’s been fashionable in films for the past 30 or 40 years (since the effect of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev wore off), the idea is welcome.

The Flemish master in this film is Pieter Brueghel the Elder, played in whispered tones and bulky purple robes by Rutger Hauer. Hauer’s always been an underrated actor, better known for façades than performances. As Brueghel, he doesn’t have a lot to do — The Mill and the Cross is so arch and particularly stylized that he is often no more (or less) important to the action than a windmill — yet he quietly conveys intelligent faith and a passion for making out of it the most potent art possible. Early in the film — though there is hardly a storyline with which to link plot-events — Brueghel pokes a stick at a fat spider in the middle of its web and later tells his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), that, like the spider, he will spin his new painting from the center outwards, in circles that will represent life as god made it. There’s no pretention in the speech, nor any doubt about the ability to make the painting. Hauer, with his blocky body and deep face, easily conveys a man of purpose and conviction: his talent is a given; the film has other things in mind.

Namely, the artifice through which Hauer must convey that talent. Like a slow acid trip through a Dutch art museum (one in which, horrifyingly, you might fall asleep), the movie takes us within Brueghel’s The Procession to the Cavalry. Meaning, essentially, that all the long shots in the film are tableau recreations of the painting, while all of the close ones represent some idea of what Brueghel’s figures might have been doing just off the edge of his canvas. Flemish peasants are seen sleeping in on hay-beds, herding cows, peddling bread, and falling victim to Inquisitors on horseback. Along the way, we are privy to a recreation of the crucifixion that was the ostensible centerpiece of The Procession.

A nice realization to be had while watching this type of painting-as-film (Vincent and Theo, parts of Kurosawa’s Dreams) is that somewhere along the blurry line between the painted backdrop and photographed landscape lies the actuality of the scene depicted in both: the film can make us aware, in a way the painting probably did for art patrons in the 15th century, that the events depicted actually took place, which is part of what Brueghel intended. So instead of simply repeating the act of looking at a Brueghel, the film takes a step towards enhancing it. The artist painted peasant life in a time when it was thought that nobody cared. Roughly 450 years later, his defiance is given a strange outlet: a crew of filmmakers who still care enough to make another thoughtful work, a tribute to the original.

Still, there is a deadly paradox in a movie this stylistically reaching yet serene. The Mill and the Cross is a very pretty film, and no one could say that it doesn’t move at exactly the pace it intends to. But if that pace is meant to instill a feeling of Brueghel-like spirituality, then the film fails. If a spiritual experience can be achieved in a movie theater, it will come from film used as film: from a captivating story perfectly married with an invisible, impeccable style. It won’t (and here, it doesn’t) come from film trying to extend its grasp to the experience of pondering great works at a museum. It’s exhilarating to be taken within a painting, to ride along with a shot that cranes up the length of Brueghel’s giant windmill and doesn’t lose the feeling of the thick color and the exquisite detail, as if you had taken a magnifying glass to the painting. But if it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to see it as a part of a painting or part of a film about a painting, then it’s just exhilaration, not revelatory.

We know that Brueghel meant to humanize the peasants of his day, to show them as the truly holy ones, in contrast to the corrupt and violent Inquisitors who “dirtied” god’s name. But the movie runs into a trap when trying to do the same: the artifice, the painted backdrops and inchworm-paced tableaux, turn these peasants from the real people we might have felt them to be into either characters from a painting (at best) or into actors dressed up in fine costumes (at worst). The Mill and the Cross places itself at an interesting nexus in the movies: on the one hand, it exists for the simple beauty of film as film, in its ability to offer a bald appreciation of art; on the other, it takes the movie right out of itself and sends it back into gallery art, without much gained from the transition.

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