The Mill and the Cross

A No genre that I can reasonably identify

  • Written by Lech Majewski & Michael Francis Gibson
  • Directed bt Lech Majewski

Even when the subject was mythical or Biblical, Peter Bruegel the Elder always painted the world he lived in–16th century Flanders. And he did it with an affectionate eye towards the daily lives of common people–individuals who would be forgotten as the momentous events in the background became history.

Painting with the wide palette that 21st century cinema allows, Lech Majewski created a masterwork about Bruegel creating one of his masterworks, The Way to Calvary. As befits Bruegel (a favorite painter of mine), the film spills over with tiny details of daily life, tells multiple stories in order to dramatize one (or two), and provides plenty of atmospheric eye candy. It also has more digital effects than a Hollywood blockbuster–even if none of them involve robots, aliens, or explosions.

(I saw this film on a review DVD prior to its screening at the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. I can’t wait to see it again in 35mm; and perhaps after that on Blu-ray.)

True to Bruegel’s style, the film starts with the day-to-day lives of ordinary, 16th-century peasants. We meet the Miller (obviously an important person in a film called The Mill and the Cross), woodsmen, and assorted farmers. Bruegel himself also shows up (Rutger Hauer), observing life and sketching plans for the painting.

But life wasn’t a rustic paradise. Flanders was part of the Spanish Empire, which considered any act justifiable if it enforced Catholicism. Bruegel saw the dark similarity between those who persecuted Christ and those who persecute in Christ’s name; Majewski sees it, as well. As Bruegel discusses his painting with his friend and patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), the cruelties of the Inquisition are foremost on their minds.

Majewski did not create a realistic biopic. Some shots are photographed against realistic nature, others against painted backgrounds, and still others against a combination of the two. There’s little dialog, but several speeches. As the film progresses, it slowly moves from the world of Bruegel’s experience to the world of his imagination. We watch Jesus’ torture and crucifixion, carried out by Spanish soldiers as Flemish peasants watch.

Bruegel made his statement about religious intolerance. Majewski made his about Bruegel. Both are worth your attention.

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