Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting, The Way to Calvary, is a masterpiece, but my appreciation for the painting has been heightened manyfold by watching another masterpiece, The Mill and the Cross, a film written and directed by Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, based on a book by Michael Francis Gibson.
The Mill and the Cross is unlike any film I have ever seen (rarely a bad thing). It takes us back to the sixteenth century, to the days when Bruegel created his masterpiece, telling us why Bruegel painted it in exactly that way and and taking us deep into the painting itself - to the life of the characters depicted within it. All of this is done with such a love for the painting that The Mill and the Cross not only breathes new life into this particular work but promotes a greater appreciation for all the world’s best works of art.
The Way to Calvary, as the name suggests, is a painting of Jesus carrying the cross to Golgotha, though Jesus is a figure lost at the centre of the painting, with the focus of attention lying elsewhere during the moment being captured. What makes the painting particularly unique, for me at least, is the windmill that sits high atop a mountain of rock overlooking the procession. The role of that mill is explained and becomes one of the focuses of the film.
The Mill and the Cross is gorgeously filmed. The painting itself often provides the background as the film blends real location landscapes in four different countries with painted ones. There is almost no dialogue in the film, with almost all of the lines going to the three main actors: Rutger Hauer (Bruegel), Michael York (Bruegel’s patron) and Charlotte Rampling (Mary). They all do fine with the fairly limited opportunities they have. I believe a second viewing is required to get a full appreciation for the characters in the painting and to pick up on more of the symbolism.
The Mill and the Cross is an inspiring and thought-provoking film, first because of the background it provides to the painting and secondly because of its reflections on Jesus’ last days and the role of God. The film suggests that Jesus would have been crucified by the ‘powers that be’ no matter when he showed up in the past 2000 years. In the sixteenth century it is the Spanish soldiers who represent Christian orthodoxy and are persecuting the Flemish protestants that do the deed. Today, I am certain that some representatives of Christian orthodoxy would still be the first to want Jesus dead.
The Mill and the Cross will not please the demographic toward which most Hollywood films are aimed. It is a very slow-moving deliberate film with little narrative and almost no action. But for those who want to see what film is capable of, and want to see a work of cinematic art, don’t miss this one. **** My mug is up and full of the finest ingredients.
P.S. This year, the Academy rewarded another unique and excellent film for trying something different (being silent, B&W, etc.), but The Mill and the Cross is, in my humble opinion, far more interesting and profound.