Enter a teeming Bruegel painting in audacious, exciting 'The Mill and the Cross'
I don't know much about Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, but he's made one wild, weird-ass movie about art and the artmaking process in The Mill and the Cross. It's a fairly awful title for such a grand, edgy cinematic experiment. Yes, a mill and a cross figure prominently in the painting under construction in the movie, but this title not only makes the film sound dull and plodding, it suggests none of the originality and sheer visual audacity that makes this movie so exciting.
In general, it's about the 16th Century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, caught in the act of creating his vast masterwork, "The Way To Calvary," in 1564. Majewski's film is inspired by a non-fiction book on the subject by art historian Michael Francis Gibson, but Majewski's approach is completely unconventional. We never see the artist actually painting; instead, Majewski creates an onscreen landscape that already looks like a Bruegel painting, especially the background, with its sky full of roiling clouds and the distant hills.
The foreground is occupied by the local peasants that Bruegel always painted with such gusto going about their daily business. Bruegel himself (played by the iconic Rutger Hauer) trudges about in the extreme foreground, deciding how he will marshal these people for allegorical purposes within his composition. He shares these ideas with the audience, sometimes in private voice-over contemplation, at other times in conversation with his wealthy patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Now and then, the busy activity onscreen stops dead in its tracks while Bruegel and Jonghelinck prowl around on the outskirts, discussing the various images and what they mean.
But this is in no way a dry history lesson or art critique. And forget about narrative: Majewski isn't interested in telling a linear story. Instead, life sprawls across his cinematic canvas, in all its messy, teeming, tragi-comic, absurd humanity. A weathered miller looks down on it all from his millhouse perched high on a craggy hill, as his windmill blades slowly churn, and the massive gears grind away.
Bruegel explains that the miller, high on his hill, represents God in his painting, "the Great Miller of Life." In Majewski's view, the painter himself (and by extension, the filmmaker) is also a godlike figure, grinding the raw grain of life and human activity into art. Those enormous wooden gears and cogs grinding away inside the millhouse are like the artist's imagination, set to work by the full sails of inspiration. (Read more)
You won't believe how amazing this movie looks. But don't take my word for it; here's the trailer.
Whatever you do, don't miss seeing this wonderful, questing, radical art film on a big screen, where it belongs! Why are you still sitting there?