The Mill and the Cross, Lech Majewski‘s 2011 film, like Pieter Bruegel the Elder‘s The Procession to Calvary, the painting that inspires it, is beautiful to look at. It might be hard to know what to make of it in a conventional movie-viewing sense, but the cavalcade of gorgeous images that it parades before our eyes very quickly convince us that we’d do better to just let our visual senses be ravished. And our moral sensibilities sometimes shocked, for human cruelty is on display too. It is the melding of beauty and cruelty that is pulled off with much aplomb in Bruegel’s classic work, and to Majewski’s credit, he achieves a similar synthesis in his.
Bruegel’s masterpiece features almost five hundred characters arrayed on a typically sprawling, panoramic canvas; Majewski’s cinematic recreation concentrates on a dozen or so of these. The setting is sixteenth-century Flanders and Spanish militia are in the mix, prosecuting, with great cruelty, the local Protestant peasantry, who seek only, like ‘commoners’ the world over, to go about their daily business. There is a cross; later there will be two more. The mill stands above it all, towering up and away into the skies; it is the provider of grain and sustenance to the tableaux at its feet. The soldiers below bring death and pain to the peasants. Children play, mothers fret, animals graze.
It all sounds very sparse, and yet, by careful attention to detail, Majewski brings to life the beauty of the everyday and the mundane. The colors and textures of fabric, earth, wood, food and water, the daily objects and materials that surround the movie’s characters, are sumptuous and startling. They tickle our sensibilities in much the same way that an artwork’s does.
The artist and his patron survey the scene before them; the former sketches the outlines of the masterwork, the latter seeks clarity on the process. There is very little dialogue; viewers short on patience will not be amused. Almost all of it is spoken by the artist at work; these insights into the creative process are revealing and edifying. And then there is the thrill of watching an artist’s hand bring, through quick expert moves that stroke and brush, an inner vision to life.
Roger Ebert concluded his review of The Mill and the Cross with the question: ‘Why must man sometimes be so cruel?’ It is a question that should occur to anyone that watches this movie: there are crucifixions, beatings, burials alive, whippings, all handed out with a disturbing indifference. That old cliché–man’s inhumanity to man–springs to our lips. The crucifixion of the ‘Savior’ should bring to mind tales of Romans and Jews, but here it is Catholics and Protestants: the characters change, the cruelty persists.
A great artwork is so, because it endures over time and makes itself available for reinterpretation to generation after generation, no matter where, no matter when. The Procession to Calvary is one because we can imagine the scenes depicted in it in our time as well: persecution, indifference to suffering, the sorrow of a mother for her dying child.
The Mill and the Cross is a spirited cinematic aspiration in the same vein.