Art reclaiming and responding to tragedy is the central theme of Lech Majewski’s unearthly feature The Mill and the Cross, one that seems particularly appropriate right after the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. It’s hard not to wonder whether we as a country have come to grips with what occurred yet, and some such as the New York Times feel like we still lack an adequate artistic response to the event. Majewski isn’t concerned with those events but in ones that occurred centuries ago—exploring how a person can find meaning in the worst sort of tragedy and inspire others with a work of incredible beauty in the face of the utmost horrors the world can offer.
The Mill and the Cross is an imaging of what inspired Pieter Bruegel’s masterful painting The Way to Calvary, an epic work featuring over 500 figures. At its most basic level the film is an explanation of the painting and the Spanish occupation of Flanders, but rather than taking a mere documentary approach, Majewski delves into the psychology behind it. What scenes must Bruegel have seen in order to paint these acts of violence and how was he able to devote himself to such a work with murder occurring all around him?
Bruegel is played by Rutger Hauer, but he clearly was cast more for his presence than his acting ability. In fact, there’s very little traditional acting at all in the film, and even less dialogue. Oddly, even the minimal dialogue at times feels out of place because of the odd way Majewski chose to tell this story. Bruegel walks amongst the figures of the painting and we’re often shown what happened before or after the moments that he paints. While this was largely done using fairly simple greenscreen technology (although with far more layers than in most films), the effect is still stunning and memorable. The real world and the painting meld into one, which works because there’s no attempt at making it seamless; instead it’s a sort of fantasy world that melds Bruegel’s consciousness with the world around him.
Majewski comes firmly from the tradition of museum installation filmmakers rather than theatrical filmmakers, so it’s no surprise that the film is slow and at times repetitive. It feels long even at 97 minutes, but even so, nearly all of its scenes are engrossing. There’s very little about The Mill and the Cross that functions as entertainment and without camera movement it’s not particularly dynamic filmmaking, despite its beauty. But the images themselves are the message and they’re powerful enough that the picture still works on its own terms. Majewski’s filmic voice isn’t for everyone, filled with lengthy tableaus without obvious meaning, but it’s strong and truly unique.
What Majewski finds in Bruegel’s painting is an aesthetic expression of truth so powerful that it overcomes the tragedies it was drawn from. It’s in fact a truth so profound to the picture that it’s almost religious, and the devotion Majewski has towards painting and art is recognizable in the devotion Bruegel had towards Christ. The result, slow and tedious as it may be at times, is a work of tangible passion and a moving testament to the place art has in overcoming any hardships.