remembering the overlooked and underrated

Visual Audacity: The Mill and the Cross

In Art, Motion Pictures on June 26, 2012 at 7:00 am

The Mill and the Cross (2011)

Every execution has a history.

Here are two men in the forest, choosing a tree; one slices a cross into the bark before they begin chopping. The bark will be cut away, the tree made into a tall post.

Here is a man wandering a dirt road, pushing what looks like a wagon wheel before him; we wonder if he is simple, or, perhaps, mad. The wheel, when it reaches its final destination, will be fixed to the top of the post. How can we, at this moment, possibly guess its grisly purpose?

Here, emerging from the morning fog, are riders in red; it is not until they are upon us that we see how fast they are moving. They will beat a man seemingly at random, whipping him into a bloody mess before tying him to a wheel we have seen before. They will carry the man and the wheel to a post we have seen before and pull the post up with ropes. Crows will eat his eyes.

Here is a miller and his wife waking. Elsewhere, children shaking off sleepiness to play. And here a man and woman reluctant to disentwine their limbs and meet the morning. This man, we come to learn, is a Protestant heretic. He will be surprised by riders in red—soldiers of Catholic Spain—and he will be whipped. He will be food for crows.

And then there is the gray-haired artist looking over sketches and drawings. He is Pieter Bruegel, as played by Rutger Hauer. The Mill and the Cross is a movie about his painting The Way to Calvary. The film is an intriguing, if sometimes unwieldy, combination of art history, imaginative speculation, and Rutger Hauer’s face.

First, a bit of history. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Flemish artist, completed the dense oil painting of more than 500 figures in 1564. At that time, Flanders was under Spanish occupation. It was the brutal kind of occupation, which the film makes abundantly clear. (Spain’s militant and repressive policies would, just a couple years later, inspire the Dutch Revolt and the Eighty Years’ War.) And that leads us to the movie’s inventive conjecturing.

The screenplay, by Polish director Lech Majewski and art historian Michael Francis Gibson, is light on dialogue. The writers have selected a dozen or so of the 500+ characters for us to follow, taking us through the events just prior to the scene portrayed in the painting. These are quiet scenes, very domestic. Bruegel’s paintings are known for putting world-changing events in the background, to highlight humanity’s inability to recognize in the present those persons and happenings that are seminal. Amazing and terrible things are happening, he’s saying, but only in hindsight, without the blinders that are our own daily lives, can we see them. It’s a good thing we have people like Pieter Bruegel. In the movie, he sees everything. As played by Hauer, he watches with an almost scientific detachment. His friend and patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), does not share this detachment. He is outraged. But what can he do? For all his wealth, he is powerless against Spanish rule. Bruegel, being a good friend, does what he can. He stops time.

It is in scenes like this that The Mill and the Cross triumphs. Using layers of real scenery, painting backdrop, and green screen digital imaging, production designers Marcel Slawinski and Katarzyna Sobanska, along with cinematographers Majewski and Adam Sikora, bring Bruegel’s painting to life. It is startling. Are the images as luscious as those in, say, the Robin Williams movie What Dreams May Come (1998)? I think not. The Mill and the Cross employs a more artificial look to it. It doesn’t try to hide at all that it’s using special effects. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I suppose it is a bit silly for a movie set inside a painting to try to make things realistic. By dispensing with such pretense, perhaps it is urging us to look at what it’s saying. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the movie but you’re interested in doing so, now is the time to stop reading. If you’ve already seen it or don’t care about knowing too much in advance, well…) And that’s where it goes wrong.

Bruegel stops time in an effort to wrestle with the madness of the scene. Christians torturing and crucifying other Christians because of their beliefs? Unchecked cruelty everywhere? How can no one see the man bearing cross at the center of the action, a crown of thorns around his head? Things are not looking good. That’s obvious. But then Bruegel starts time up again. The film proceeds with the inevitable. The unnamed, faceless heretic is crucified while his mother (Charlotte Rampling) watches. We hear her thoughts. She cannot understand how yesterday everyone praised him and yet today they howl for his blood. She thinks of how she knew he was special, even when he was young. She remembers how he loved to laugh.

These moments with the Virgin Mary are touching; the dialogue is poetry. The scenes with Judas…not so much. I could be wrong, but it seems that Majewski and Gibson have superimposed Judas onto the painting; I don’t believe he’s in the original. Of course you can’t have the story of Jesus without Judas being involved, but by continuing with the story and moving on to the crucifixion, the film moves away from the painting—away from the movie’s abstract texture—and settles into a depiction of nails and blood and thieves and gambling soldiers that, while well-executed, is nothing new. Yes, the violence of that moment is awful—but by that point, the message has been driven pretty well home. The filmmakers need it, though, to provide contrast when the film ends with Bruegel sketching in the air with his finger, only to be disturbed by villagers dancing naively, desperately, in the background.

Except, well, the movie doesn’t really end there. The final shot is of the painting itself, hanging on a museum wall. The camera draws back slowly, moving to the right, and continues to pull back. Other Bruegel paintings are revealed. No one is in the gallery. The setting is formal, less than inviting. Is this a criticism? Are we being told these paintings are not merely paintings, but records of violence; to hang them on walls like this, so far removed from their origins, isolated under fluorescent lights, is to sap them of meaning?

Maybe. It could also be saying, “Hey! All of these painting are here, waiting for you! Look at them! Dive into them!”

What I do know is that The Mill and the Cross is ambitious. Many critics, from Roger Ebert to The New York Times to Slant Magazine, were stunned by the film and praised it to, ahem, the heavens. I like ambitious, too, and there’s no questioning the visual audacity of the film. For me, though, it’s aiming for profundity and missing. I would find it far more engrossing if it were more a movie about exploring a painting as it is (such as the scenes where Bruegel is actually moving among the characters in the painting), and less a painting being turned into a movie with a second half that plays like a watered-down version of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

That said, you should watch it anyway. Despite its shortcomings, it is a bold film. One starring Rutger Hauer, no less. How often does that happen? The last time was Sin City (2005). That’s too long. At this rate, we may never see its like again.

Running time: 92 minutes

The Mill and the Cross is currently streaming on Netflix Instant.

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