Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Mill and the Cross Review

The Mill and the Cross
Directed by Lech Majewski
Released in 2011

The unlikeliest of outlets introduce classic art to the world today. Spongebob acquainted the pajamaed youth with Nosferatu. A football spectator holds up a sign “John 3:16” and Google breaks with queries. The work of 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder received a revival of sorts with the success of the indie folk band Fleet Foxes and their eponymous debut album, which featured Brueghel’s chaotic Netherlandish Proverbs as its cover. Contemporary exposure to antiquated art through these casual mentions and jabs resurrects what may have been forgotten and makes it, dare I say it, fashionable. This all operates on the surface level, however, and cannot be substituted for modern analysis. The Mill and The Cross elevates the conversation and literally steps inside Brueghel the Elder’s work for a beautiful, haunting, and very perplexing study of a genius. 

That being said, this film sides more on the side of art appreciation than evaluation. Tracking Brueghel’s process on one of his masterpieces, The Procession to Calvary, the film takes a minimalist approach. Director Lech Majewski tosses potent images onto the screen and lets them speak for themselves. The camera views its many actors from a distance, not unlike the broad, noisy works of Brueghel. Beloved cineaste techniques like deep focus give the audience the choice of where to pay attention. This detached style evokes the artist’s own and stirs awe in the vast amount of details Brueghel pained over on his vast canvas. It eschews didactics as a result - not a poor choice - but manages to focus more on the aesthetic brilliance of Brueghel’s work rather than its broader implications. 

Or perhaps it does. The film lacks a typical narrative, so no value can be gleaned from the plot or character progression. Brueghel the Elder was affectionally known as “Peasant Brueghel” for his attention and glorification of his own social strata, and the filmmakers know this. There is little to no dialogue for periods as long as 25 minutes at a time. These durations, which are not a bore but more a hypnotic curiosity, depict the mundane, cruel and even goofy lives of the peasant through beautiful lens. It is not unfair to say that the beginning, which follows many families slowly waking up and starting their day, moves lethargically and tests the patience. Stay with it. 

The pure beauty of these scenes, captured by cinematographers Adam Sikora and Majewski himself, speaks on a more intimate level, in a way justifying the film’s aesthetic priorities. The opening scene, in which Brueghel - played by the immensely talented Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner and, yes, Hobo with a Shotgun - walks through a tableau of his painting with his patron (Michael York), stuns. Brueghel approaches a woman, frozen in place, to adjust the train of her dress. There is no apparent motive for this action, but he feels it necessary and continues to tweak the trivial as he sees fit. Brueghel cared about the smallest of details even when his range presented so many. There are two scenes where the action halts like this, stepping back to appreciate the meticulous craft of the artist. They stand as the most impressive, searing into the memory, and support Majewski’s distant study of Brueghel, raising questions to his art but not providing answers. No one has them, after all. 

Christian imagery serves as the director’s language of sorts; don’t forget the subject of the film is a painting called The Procession to Calvary. Scenes of shocking brutality appear suddenly and disturb more for the apathetic viewpoint the camera takes than the actual violence. It is not that a man being whipped dozens of times pours buckets of blood, but that the heinous act is really not a big deal. This reflects the minuscule presence of Jesus himself in the painting, easily glossed over on a casual glance. Strong visual metaphors will resonate personally with those who have a passion for art history or Christianity.

The windmill towering above the subjects of the painting, and inspiring half of the film’s title, finds its way into many shots. Whether Brueghel studies a valley of peasants below or a woman mourns the loss of her son in her own home, the windmill stares across fields, through windows and under arches. Brueghel comments that instead of showing God staring from the heavens, in his painting he wants a mortal - the miller, framed with such commanding, vertical shots reminiscent of the religious drama Black Narcissus - perched atop his windmill to be the all-seeing eye. The characters cannot hide from judgment, just as the film cannot escape Brueghel’s own influence. 

Lech Majewski tackles this subject through little more than visuals, moving portraits. Taking on a genius at his own game will not end well. In that sense, The Mill and the Cross does not analyze art but praises the artist’s dreams and the admirer’s dedicated struggles to decode them. Brueghel’s painting comes alive and Majewski invites us to marvel at the detail and heart an artist infused on a scene so sad.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars out of 5

This review was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

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