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The Mill and the Cross is a movie inside of a painting, specifically
The Way to Calvary (1564) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Pieter Bruegel
(Rutger Hauer) is the main character in the film which takes turns
following him as he decides how his painting will take shape and who
will be in it and also follows the local peasants who go about their
daily business in middle of 16th century Flanders. The background is
always the actual painting's background with the mill high up on a rock
looking down on a large field where most of the action occurs.
Bruegel's patron is Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), a successful Flemish banker who spends his time learning from Bruegel about the people in the painting and what each section represents and also pontificates to nobody in particular about the current state of affairs in Flanders. In 1564, Spain ruled what is now Antwerp and Flanders. The Spanish militia seen in the painting in their red tunics seemed to be preoccupied with chasing down and torturing Protestant heretics. There are gruesome scenes in the film with a man tied to a wagon wheel hoisted up in the air with no defense at all while the birds have at him. A woman's fate is no better as she is shoved alive into an open grave while the red tunics fill the dirt in on top of her.
The Way to Calvary itself does not show these particular atrocities. Instead, it has Jesus in the center hoisting his own cross towards his crucifixion. The exact moment the painting captures is Simon helping him with the cross because Jesus stumbled and fell down. Everyone's eyes are on Simon at this time instead of Jesus. In the foreground is Mary (Charlotte Rampling). She is helpless as she sits on the sidelines because there is nothing she can do to prevent the red tunics from carrying out their mission. The rest of the painting shows hundreds of peasants either watching the proceeding or going about their chores. Children play games on the hillside, a local peddler sells his bread, a horn player dances around, and above them all, the miller observes from his windmill.
The Mill and the Cross is at its best when Bruegel is explaining his inspiration and how he plans to incorporate all of his ideas and scenes into one large landscape. He looks closely at a spider's web to discover where the anchor point on his painting will be and how to section off the rest of the action. Just as intriguing are the scenes of everyday life in 1564 Flanders. A young couple gets out of bed and takes their cow to the field for the day. Bruegel's wife and children wake up after him and get ready for breakfast which is a small slice of bread. The miller and his apprentice ready the mill for the day's tasks and the large wheels and gears moan into action.
Rutger Hauer is excellent as Pieter Bruegel and he appears to be serving his artistic penance to atone for his ridiculous participation in Hobo with a Shotgun earlier this year. Michael York is taking a break from his voice over work and TV appearances to finally show up in a serious film again. Charlotte Rampling is sort of the odd man out here. Her screen time is sparse as Mary and she spends most of the time misty eyed observing all of the peasant movements around her.
The Mill and the Cross is a Polish production directed by Lech Majewski who also aided in adapting the screenplay from a book of the same name by Michael Francis Gibson. The film was an official selection at this year's Sundance Film Festival and will most likely earn an Oscar nod for Best Costume Design. The costumes are remarkable and frequently take center stage over the performers.
The Mill and the Cross is a bit reminiscent of The Girl with a Pearl Earring but instead of showing how the painting is made from the outside, this time, the filmmakers actually take you inside of the painting itself and walks on the same landscape as its subjects. There is little dialogue in the film which is not a problem because it is so absorbing to just sit back and watch the peasants wander around the area and Bruegel figure out how to tie everything together. I will not give it away, but the final shot of the film is as wonderful as the rest as the camera backs up and reveals something to the audience.
If you are a movie patron with patience and an interest in art history, The Mill and the Cross is for you. If you get bored in movies without guns, flash bangs, and screaming, stay away.
Many thanks to the Rotterdam filmfestival 2011 for screening this
guided tour through Christ Carrying the Cross, the painting by Pieter
Bruegel the Elder. I learned a lot about the ideas behind it and the
way it was set up. Seeing it explained gradually throughout the story,
will let me remember it better than reading about it in a book.
We also learned a lot about how people lived those days. A special mention should be devoted to the parts where this film demonstrates that life goes on, regardless of politics, war, and religions. We also saw many forgotten customs about bread, threshold cleaning, and much more that I want to leave as an exercise to the close observer.
A dramatic moment at ¾ of the film is where the painter raises his hand, and life comes to a stand still, including the mill on the hill that stops by a hand signal of the miller. It seems no coincidence that the miller very much resembles how our Lord is pictured usually, and also that he oversees the whole panorama from his high position. As soon as he signals the mill to resume working, the whole picture relives from its frozen state.
A large part of the audience stayed for the final Q&A. We got much information about the post production effort required to get the colors right, and creating the different layers to get everything in focus. Further, the film maker told he wanted to make a feature film from the start. It was considered a Mission Impossible by the people around him. How wrong they were!
All in all, a lot goes on in the film, much more than I could oversee during the screening. Maybe I should try to grasp more of the fine details during a second viewing. I don't think I saw everything that the film makers did put into this production.
I found this film to inspire the same contemplative mood and heightened awareness of similar films that build power without reliance on lots of dialogue, music or usual cinematic cues. If you appreciated "Into Great Silence" or "Vision" or "The Tree of Life" or even "2001" you will appreciate the poetic quality of this film. It is important for us to slow down occasionally and allow some films to affect us without the necessity of being slammed over the head with noise and speed and highly charged emotions. After all, for a film placed in its time, that is a more realistic portrayal of life during those centuries. This film illuminates the artistic process and aims of the artist. We are fortunate that the makers of this film dared to create this unique journey into a canvas of one of the world's great artists.
I just saw this film as part of the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival in a screening at SFMOMA. What a work of art! A clear labor of love, this layered re-telling of the significance of, and meaning in Pieter Bruegel's masterpiece, "The Way to Calvary" is one of the finest embodiments of a canvas brought to life I have ever seen. Rutger Hauer is Pieter Bruegel, Sir Michael York is his patron, and the mesmerizingly beautiful Charlotte Rampling is the Virgin Mary. The unnamed figures in the painting (well over 100) are brought to life, and what a life it must have been in the 16th Century. Simple and with clear order, yet brutal and harsh. Not only is "The Mill and the Cross" a re-creation of the painting it is 16th Century Flanders (as Bruegel saw it). The film also acts as a Passion Play, and given I saw it Easter Weekend it couldn't have seemed more appropriate.
The Mill and the Cross is a painting (so not a lot of plot!) come to
life and it is unlike any movie I have ever seen before (and I have
seen a few)! Directed by Polish filmmaker, Lech Majewski, it is a
recreation and interpretation of the famous 1564 painting by Pieter
Bruegel, "The Way to Calvary".
Glacially-paced and nearly-silent (at first) ... one film critic (Stephen Cole of "Globe and Mail") said that this film's detractors will likely lament that watching this "is like watching a painting dry" (a point I can understand some having). If it doesn't grab one's interest early-on -- the film's opening is the painting coming to life and than slowly drying back onto the canvas -- there is no point in watching it.
Another film about the inspiration of a painting (that I loved) -- The Girl with the Pearl Earring -- told a possible story of how a Vermeer masterpiece came into being AND each scene was as lovely as a painted picture. Here each scene looks like a painting as well; but this story isn't necessarily one about a "what-if" (although as a film it technically is). Instead, The Mill and the Cross pretends to show us THIS painting (not the inspiration behind it) as it is being painted.
The painting is of the re-imagined crucifixion of Christ in 16th Century Flanders while the region is under BRUTAL Spanish occupation. As Bruegel (Rutger Hauer - Batman Begins, Hobo with a Shotgun, Blade Runner) draws and explains his painting, the scene comes to life so that the audience sees what Bruegel "sees". The premise and style are highly unusual but I appreciated the delicate take (layer-upon-layer of computer imaging) of telling this story.
The Mill and the Cross isn't content with looking at a piece of art -- this film is about experiencing it which is rather marvelous as the Flanders countryside comes to life (and it is as if the audience has stumbled upon the same setting/scene as Bruegel). We get bits and pieces of story but no major plot other than the painting and its scenes/images coming to life.
This wasn't a favorite of mine by any means; but I do like the originality of it and anybody with a serious interest in art might want to check it out.
The Mill and the Cross (2011)
The Polish film "The Mill and the Cross" was co-written and directed by Lech Majewski It stars Rutger Hauer as Pieter Bruegel, and co-stars Charlotte Rampling and Michael York.
The film consists of an attempt to bring to life Bruegel's 1564 painting, "The Procession to Calvary." I have seen this painting in the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Vienna. Once you've seen it, you don't forget it, because it is filled with people and action. (Although, in the painting, Jesus has just collapsed under the weight of the cross, so, in a sense, action has been frozen for a few seconds.)
The painting is also remarkable for a very strange symbol--a windmill placed high atop a stony crag. In the film, Bruegel explains that the miller looks down from his mill and sees everything that is happening below, just as God looks down from heaven and can see everything. So, the mill and the miller work symbolically. However, in a practical sense, the mill would never be that high on an large, steep, stony crag. If a mill were really in that location, no one could bring the wheat to the mill or take away the flour.
The other dominant vertical structure is a cartwheel, raised high on a long pole. This was the device used by the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands to execute and display prisoners. The prisoner was tied to the wheel, and the wheel was hoisted far up in the air. The device prevented anyone from helping the person--if alive--or removing the body. Only the carrion birds could reach the body, which they did, with predictable results.
Technology in the 21st Century makes everything possible, so it's no surprise that the painting is reproduced in the film in a real landscape. Sometimes all the figures are frozen, but other times you can see a cow moving or some other action taking place. The special effects are routine by now, but the manner in which they are used is not routine.
We really have the sense that we are looking at a landscape, and the artist is putting it down on canvas before our eyes. This is a highly creative way to look at life the way an artist sees it, and then look at the way life is transformed and committed to canvas.
We saw this film on the large screen at the excellent Rochester Polish Film Festival. It really will work better in a theater. However, if that's not an option, it's worth seeing on DVD.
This gorgeous reconstruction of Bruegel's painting is ultimately more
impressive than inspiring. There is no character, no narrative, no
emotion in this piece and there's not that much analysis, either,
despite the director's claims. I just saw it at the SF Film Fest, and
the likable and knowledgeable director gave a lengthy lecture a) on how
long it took to find the fabric for the costumes and b) on the loss of
our ability to read pictorial symbols. Sadly, the latter was not
related to (or within) the film directly--that would have been
interesting indeed!--and neither is the impressive (expensive)
production design enough to make this work compelling.
If you are interested in symbology and art history, see Peter Greenaway's, far superior Nightwatching, a film with a plot and lively characters as well as a fascinating view into the meanings (and the USE of meanings and symbols) of another famous Dutch painting, which, despite also suffering from some bombastic elements, still manages to engage the viewer in its own right as a movie.
Also Derek Jarman's Caravaggio comes to mind as a film that uses tableaux to evoke the painter of the title. Despite--or perhaps due to--being somewhat opaque and strange, the Greenaway and Jarman films (and almost any of their work) are far more interesting than The Mill and the Cross, because they use the medium of film to SHOW and not TELL. This literal and slavish reproduction of the painting was impressive in its verisimilitude but ultimately pointless and superficial.
It can be said that Lech Majewski's 2011 film depicts "art imitating
life, imitating art, imitating life, which also typifies the layer upon
layer of meaning and implication to be found in the film. Pieter
Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting "The Way to Calvary" creates the
story line for this completely unconventional portrayal of life in the
1600's and Bruegel's technique or the process he may of worked through
while creating the painting. Bruegal's painting is much more than a
back drop and can almost be seen as a central character, perhaps even a
brilliant supporting actor.
As the film weaves in and out of scenes found in the painting, the characters are brought to life portraying their personal reality behind the snippet of time in which they are actually portrayed. In a further layer in the film consider the juxtaposition of good and evil, peasants innocently awaking to begin a day's work, the musicians playing and dancing with merry abandon, contrasted with the whipping and murder of the young husband by the Spaniards. As Bruegel considers the crucifixion scene he actually begins to interact with the painting. He signals to the miller (a euphemism for God) to stop; and as the miller brings the mill (and seemingly life itself) to a standstill the moment is so unsettling as the windmill, looking mysteriously like the cross Christ has suffered on, turns counterclockwise.
The final shot in this lusciously disconcerting film pans out from the painting "The Way to Calvary" as it hangs in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and leaves one to ponder the art each of us has seen, and the snapshots in time that art depicts. Majewski's brilliant film gives pause to consider the lives lived behind all the images of all the art over the ages, and so much more.
The Mill and the Cross (2011)
Maybe I anticipated this for too long, hearing about its production, and teaching in an Art History department myself. The result is both astonishing and boring as heck. I know, there is a kind of absorption that happens through silence and slow appreciation. And there is even the astonishment of looking without really thinking, or feeling, for the narrative or the characters.
This is, for sure, a visually wonderful movie. The way it works out the scenery and milieu of a period based on a single painting is brilliant and ambitious. The mise-en-scene might in fact be the only and singular point of it all. So on that level, eleven stars. Terrific. Mind-blowing.
But that exercise in naturalistic re-creation, in enlivening a masterpiece on canvas by Bruegel from 1564, is not, to me, enough. You will know after ten minutes whether to continue. I have heard of people being just spellbound by it all, so that hopefully would be your feeling.
I tried to make the characters have meaning on some level, either in their interactions, or in their actions alone, or through what they did to the world around them. Much of what happens feels more medieval than Renaissance, to me, but I'm sure that was researched thoroughly. (Bruegel was painting at a time when the Renaissance from Italy had made its way thoroughly north to the lowland countries and beyond.)
It is fun (and indicative of the seriousness here) that both Michael York and Charlotte Rampling took part, late in their careers. That was one of the draws, for sure. But don't expect revelations there, either. Expect in fact only what the director, Lech Majewski, intendeda film version of the painting, set in its larger context but always based on and drawing from this one admittedly fantastic painting. Which might be your starting point, before launching into this one and half hour homage.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Set in Flanders during the 16th century, It is inspired by Peter
Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary. The drama
depicts Breugel's creative process conceiving and rendering the
painting while life goes on around him: the gentle humour in the
pastoral activities of the peasants including Breugel's own family,
along with the arbitrary and horrible crucifixion of alleged
Protestants by the red-tuniced Spanish Inquisition militia sent from
If you're looking for an interesting narrative, action, character development, witty dialogue, or any dialogue at all, you're out of luck. The film is in English, but the amount of melodramatic mutterings from the only 3 English speakers would barely fill a page (all of the rest of the actors are Polish). This film dies on a small screen. If on the other hand, you're able to watch it on the largest possible screen in HD, you're in for a rare treat. The narrative is not what it's about, it's almost entirely about the remarkable imagery.
Bruegel was inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, both in his depiction of religious events and his style of rendering. Like Bosch, Bruegel depicted many scenes of human activity within one painting (art as a narrative medium for the illiterate). In The Procession to Calvary, Christ carrying the cross is depicted small in scale, at the centre of the composition, surrounded by many other apparently unrelated groupings. The whole scene is dominated by a mill in the background sitting precariously on an impossible rock perch. Bruegel seems to have been working in the period before the formal rules of perspective entered the visual language of painters. His figures do shrink in size from foreground to background, but the terrain they occupy appears parallel or flat to the picture plane.
This quality seems to make it ideal for the director's whimsical depiction of the painting taking shape in the artist's mind: groupings of real figures, all apparently shot in isolation, animate the entire surface of the painting, waiting to be frozen in time by the Bruegel's brush. Seeing the painting briefly in this manner is one of the most charming moments of cinematic art in recent memory.
The director doesn't stop there in his use of a Bruegelesque approach to a visual medium Bruegel could't have imagined. There are numerous scenes where the camera gazes steadily on elaborately staged action in the distant background while something else transpires in close up. Both parts are in sharp focus. Trying to achieve this in-camera would present the cinematographer with an impossible depth of field situation. I expect a lot of scenes were carefully staged in this way, to be digitally knitted together in post-production. In every scene the colours and textures are a visual feast and the lighting looks deceptively natural. The costumes are stunning and the production design like a painting by Bruegel.
As for the dialogue: this film might have been better without any; maybe a bit of voice-over at best. Rutger Hauer's craggy features make him entertaining enough to watch as Bruegel. He needn't have opened his mouth. Michael York as Bruegel's patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck just looks old and Charlotte Rampling as Mary delivers her standard serenely sad gazes, but is otherwise forgettable.
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