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The Mill and the Cross: Like watching paint dry, but in a good way

Rutger Hauer in a scene from "The Mill and the Cross"

Lech Majewski

2.5 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

Here is a film that could start a fight. Maybe even between you and your film partner.

Written and directed by Polish-American filmmaker Lech Majewski, The Mill and the Cross is an almost entirely silent art history lesson. Rutger Hauer plays Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel. The film opens on the painter's lavish 1564 depiction of Christ's crucifixion – The Way to Calvary.

Some characters are moving around. Before long we've slipped inside the painting and are following Christ's final hours and Bruegel's work day. We see the artist napping in a swaying field. Later he consults with his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York) and saintly mother (Charlotte Rampling).

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Even though Jesus and a Dutch Master are in view, there are no marquee stars in Majewski's film. Just as the poet, Auden, in writing about Breugel's Fall of Icarus was distracted from the title character by horses and skating children, Majewski is absorbed with incidental characters.

We come upon a peasant being thrown on the rack and offered to starving crows. Later, a woman, perhaps his wife, is buried alive.

One might say the Polish filmmaker is only following orders by turning from Christ's suffering. The soldiers following Jesus in Bruegel's painting are not Romans persecuting the King of the Jews, but red-breasted mercenaries in the service of Philip II of Spain, ruler of the Netherlands.

The Way to Calvary was the artist's protest over Catholic persecution of Protestants in Flanders.

Non-art-majors beware: Majewski expects you to know all this going in. The Mill and the Cross comes with almost no contextual information. We wander through Bruegel's painting without a tour guide. And the filmmaker enjoys cinematography the way Bruegel loved paint.

Though often ravishing, with brilliant set pieces – horses charging through a morning mist, tumbling children spilling from their beds at dawn – the film contains more than a few longueurs.

If a peasant climbs a flight of stairs, we see him negotiate every step. One sequence has Bruegel's mother staring in mute horror for two minutes.

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The Mill and the Cross may thrill you. But be prepared for a fight. Twenty minutes in, your companion may throw up his or her arms and complain, "This is like watching a painting dry."

They wouldn't be wrong.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Mill and the Cross

  • Directed by Lech Majewski
  • Written by Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson
  • Starring Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling
  • Classification: NA


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