Polish born filmmaker Lech Majewski has done something completely unique with his latest picture, The Mill And The Cross. He's essentially taken what most would consider to be dull, possibly pretentious and more or less unfilmable - the art essay - and turned it into a fascinating, moving and involving motion picture. The premise of the film is that painter Peter Bruegel (played incredibly well by Rutger Hauer) ins 1564 painted the painting 'The Way To Calvary' which is famous enough to hang on a Vienna Gallery wall as you read this. In the painting, Christ, under the weight of the cross he must bear on the way to his own crucifixion, collapses in front of a mob of bystanders. A powerful enough image on its own, to be sure, but there's more to the story behind this piece than just one artist's interpretation of a pivotal moment in Biblical times.
So with that in mind, Hauer as Bruegel basically pulls us inside the painting and gives us a guided tour of the events that he's depicted with his brush. He explains the significance of the windmill placed high up on the hill in the background, behind Christ's moment of suffering on the road, and he explains to us how the miller himself, looking down from the hill, is a metaphor for how God watches people on Earth. He also explains the significance of an unusually placed wheel atop a pole in the left corner of the film - another item that, like the mill, seems out of place here. This turns out to be a medieval torture device used by the Spanish occupiers of the Netherlands which hoisted the prisoner high enough up into the air that no one would be able to help them.
Based on the book of the same name by art critic Michael Francis, The Mill And The Cross is very much a painting come to life. By placing Hauer, who bears an interesting resemblance to a self portrait that Bruegel painted, in front of a green screen he was able to basically allow the actor to walk through the painting as if he we part of what was actually happening therein. It's an interesting technique that works surprisingly well, and it's quite obvious that Majewski and his team put a lot of time and care into getting things just right. The end results are impressive as the movie, like the painting it's exploring, offers up a lot of interesting little details that might not be readily apparent at first glance. As Bruegel put a lot of different perspectives into the painting, Majewski's filmed version brings those in front of the lens so we wind up with a very layered and detailed piece of work that flows beautifully.
Front and center in all of this is Rutger Hauer, best known for Blade Runner and the star of the recent Grindhouse throwback Hobo With A Shotgun. Hauer has always excelled at playing odd characters, be it the part of a Catholic priest in Sin City or a blind man fighting for justice Zatoichi style in Blind Justice. He's a quirky man with a weathered face and an impressive theatrical range and he's very well cast here. The closest point of comparison is probably Brad Dourif's work in Herzog's Wild Blue Yonder, in that it's so committed you don't see Hauer as Hauer playing a role, you see an eccentric painter eager to guide you through what he's worked so very hard to accomplish. He does this without a lot of dialogue, though we also meet his patron of the art, Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), and his mother, Mary (Charlotte Rampling) in addition to a few of the characters that populate the painting itself. Through all of this we come to understand why there's a torture device and a mill in the painting, why people are going about their business while Christ lies tormented at their feet and why Bruegel depicted the events this way.
The end result is a beautiful and meditative film, it can almost put you in a trance as it plays out in front of you and if nothing else, it'll give you a new appreciation for Bruegel's skills as a painter and as an interpreter of events that shaped his unique view.
Kino's AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer is framed at 1.85.1 and it looks very good. Detail is impressive and colors are reproduced beautifully. Skin tones look nice and lifelike and while there isn't as much texture in some of the backgrounds as something with more 'live action' in it than this primarily green screen affair, there's really not much to complain about. Close up shots look very nice and facial detail in those shots can be quite impressive and when the green screen isn't in use, detail and texture are both very strong. All in all, this feels like a very good representation of what the filmmaker probably wanted the movie to look like. There are no authoring issues to complain about nor are there any issues with noise reduction or heavy edge enhancement. On top of that, the image is always clean and clear - all in all, this is quite a strong picture here.
The only audio option is a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, in English, with no alternate language subtitles or dubbed audio tracks provided. The lossless track here is also strong, offering some great background noise to fill in certain scenes (the clamping of horses galloping or the cawing of a crow perched atop the wheels both stand out in key scenes) while simultaneously providing crisp, clear and well balanced dialogue. The score, composed by Majewski and Josef Skrzek, also sounds quite good and if it's sometimes very subtle, so much the better as it suits the very detailed and layered style of the film.
The main extra on the disc is The World According to Bruegel (44:40), which is an interesting making of segment that features interviews with Majewski, Hauer and York and which provides plenty of welcome background information on the painting and the man who made it. Majewski discusses how he came to this project and why and we get some interesting behind the scenes footage of the cast and crew on location dealing with the logistics of the shoot, the sets and the makeup required to get it just right. It's quite interesting and serves as an insightful look into what had to happen to get this project done. Additionally, Kino have included an Interview With Lech Majewski (19:53) that covers some of the same ground but which allows him to go into more detail on his motives behind making this film and related subjects. Again, it's an interesting piece and worth spending the time to watch if you enjoyed the feature.
Rounding out the extras are a still gallery, a trailer for the feature and trailers for a few other Kino releases. Animated menus and chapter stops are also included. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition.
Kino's Blu-ray edition of The Mill And The Cross is an excellent representation of a wonderfully interesting, creative and beautiful film. Hauer's performance is completely heartfelt, Majewski's direction is spot on and all of the qualities that makes this movie as interesting as it is are rendered very well indeed by the strong transfer, great audio quality and interesting extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.