Like most of his paintings, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Procession to Calvary is an image crammed with action. An array of characters stretch from one side of the canvas to the other: soldiers on horses, religious figures, commoners and peasants – all representing a great swath of life caught up in both common and highly symbolic action. It is this fusing of religious and mythic themes with candid portrayals of the people of Bruegel’s times for which the painter is most known. For Polish director Lech Majewski, they offer a rich depth of material for filmmaking. Just as in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog saw the caves in Lascaux France as prototypes for the rapid succession of images that would become the cinema, Majewski sees similar action taking place in Bruegel’s painting, and his new film, The Mill and the Cross, is an attempt to render on screen the reality of paint and to use film medium as a means to understand the nature of art.
The film opens with a panning shot of Bruegel’s painting, half digitally recreated, half staged with real actors and settings. The quality of the imagery and the steady, studied exposition immediately calls to mind Eve Sussman’s painting recreations as well as Bill Viola’s dreamlike The Greeting (1995). Yet on its surface, Majewski’s project is simpler than these contemporary art works in that it merely seeks to set this historical work of art to life. As his film unfolds, we watch the characters in Bruegal’s painting go about their mundane, daily lives, actions that will, on this day at least, culminate in the painter’s epic scene. There is a peddler with his bread, a man tooting on a horn, a beautiful woman who wakes up to her house full of rowdy children, and the miller and his wife who set the windmill in the painting, perched high up on a craggy cliff, in motion. For the first thirty minutes of Majewski’s film, there is not a single word uttered. Instead we get a fascinating historical vignette, meticulous in its effort to create the feeling of a way of life that is both foreign and familiar to our own, with a style reminiscent of Italian director Ermanno Olmi.
At the heart of Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross is the question of how we are supposed to look at art, and this fictional recreation has the luxury of imagining the painter himself walking us through his work. Bruegal (Rutger Hauer) points out the formal symbolism that underlies what is, at first glance, a sweeping and baffling cornucopia of life. The painter takes us through the repetition of circle imagery, from the windmill’s spin, to the city’s cyclical wall, to the wheel atop a post that is used to feed outlaws to the ravens. There is also the circle to the right of the painting, the site of the anticipated execution of Christ, around which the townspeople “swarm like flies,” as Bruegel puts it. But it is the great action of the painting that creates the cyclical form that holds together the work’s composition, the town sweeping about the central fulcrum of the jagged hill that holds the windmill. The windmill, Bruegel explains, is the house of the heavenly miller who allows life to move through time. Majewski adds another circle: the round loaves that the peasants eat throughout the film. They are the product of the miller’s work, corporal sustenance that cannot shake overtones of Eucharistic sacrifice.
There is no real plot to The Mill and the Cross, and its cinematography is alternately rich and colorful and cheaply digitalized. It proves more a meditation than a movie, and like Malick’s The Tree of Life will likely be brush up against movie goers who don’t like films that require a certain amount of concurrent personal introspection as a means to enjoying the movie. The Mill and the Cross is ultimately an invitation to study a work of art, and Majewski is both interpreting and opening a painting in a way that expounds and deepens the mystery.
At its heart The Mill and the Cross is a deeply Christian work of art, but not because of its religious themes or symbolism, or because of any overriding sense of morality or moral judgment. In fact, the religious figures in the movie, priests and monks and soldiers carrying out the will of the Catholic Spanish king, are a mixed bag, taking on the roles of Roman soldiers, Pharisees, Sadducees, and saints alike (at one point a priest drags a young woman to a hole and holds her down as soldiers bury her alive). What makes The Mill and the Cross Christian, though, is that its world is bound up in the vision of reality as transcendental in nature, participating simultaneously in both the temporal and spiritual realms. In both Bruegel and Majewski’s vision, our lives – their sufferings and joys, the scrubbing and singing – are all perpetually involved in the ever-unfolding action of Christ’s passion.
The Mill and the Cross is a film devoid of sentimentality and whose beauty is cloaked in a mortifying tone of compunction. “Be it the birth of Jesus, the fall of Icarus, or the death of Saul, falling on his sword,” Bruegal opines at one point, “All these great world changing events go unnoticed by the crowd.” It is an admonition of humanity, though an unavoidable one, because it offers salvific hope not through moral prescriptions, but through the very purpose and nature of art itself: pay attention and always look more closely.