Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski has been making films for more than thirty years, and while I can't speak to the breadth of his filmography, if The Mill and The Cross is anything to go by, Majewski gets an A+ for effort. In telling the story of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting The Way to Calvary, Majewski attempts to not only depict the humongous artwork, which juxtaposes Jesus' crucifixion with religious persecution of the Flemish by the Spanish Inquisition, but also to illuminate the impulses and catalysts that drove Bruegel to depict the events just so.
As a live-action deconstruction of The Way to Calvary, the film is a prime example of that unique magic made possible only by the silver screen - aided by intelligently deployed CGI to breathe life into the sprawling landscape and the massive cast populating the work. The depths of certain shots and the framing of others are truly breathtaking and the camera moves, especially an unbroken crane up to a massive windmill resting on a mountaintop are unforgettable. Yet, on the flip side of these accolades is a film that is both precariously portentous and occasionally pretentious, delivered mostly in hushed tones and flushed with a glum yet dignified reverence. The resulting picture is not so much unsatisfying as stuffy, requiring patience and an imagination that would allow you to accentuate what little plot momentum the film provides.
Rutger Hauer, a master of minute facial expression, portrays Bruegel, puzzling over the detailed facets that would form his masterwork and carrying on conversations with Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York, exceedingly serious), who would provide Bruegel with the necessary funds. The scenes between the two men share a narrative urgency that is missing from much of the film, as do York's standalone scenes, the patron sharing the artist's sorrow at the horrors unfolding from the hands of men who deem themselves holier.
The patient viewer will no doubt appreciate the specificity of both costume and pacing, the daily grind (in the case of the windmill, quite literal) depicted with almost overwhelming detail, as life in 16th century Flanders, its joys and pains, are all on display. The Spanish Inquisition quickly breaks up an idyllic day, cornering an unfortunate Flemish soul and dispatching of the man in exceedingly cruel manner. Another, a woman, is buried alive in two scenes that are not ensconced by a dramatic narrative, but exist freely as disturbing evidence.
Although a short film by most standards, The Mill and The Cross still feels overstuffed to meet a feature-length running time. As Jesus is hoisted up on the cross, Mary (Charlotte Rampling) ponders the tragedy of losing a child - while Rampling commands attention, she is saddled with heady dialogue that reads more like poetry than the anguished outcries of a mother who's lost her son. That can be said for the film itself - the artificiality of it is the order of the day and while the dialogue points out the emotions and politics that drove Bruegel to create, the film itself rarely dramatizes them.
This is understandable given that the point of the film is to open up this work for speculation and pick it apart without any cheap tricks. Yet this is cinema we are talking about, and The Mill and The Cross has all the necessary factors to make a compelling dramatic film. Instead, for a film that's so much show, it still manages to shoehorn in a whole lot of tell.
The 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen is satisfying and free of any standout flaws. The skin tones, background and detail of the film is frequently breathtaking and the transfer is a testament to that. While the frequently noticeable CGI backgrounds stifles the illusion a bit, it is otherwise one fine transfer.
A 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track reproduces the sounds of everyday Flanders with gusto, from children playing to hoofbeats on the concrete, Majewski has a fascination with isolating the sounds of daily life until they burrow into your brain. A fine, clear mix, marred only by the lack of subtitles, which occasionally make the dialogue difficult to make out, but not difficult to hear.
Just over an hour extras are included, starting with The World According to Bruegel (44:40), the main attraction that sees Majewski and his cast talking at length about the making of the film. At forty minutes, it's a bit draining but to a fan of the film, this is welcome information. Those looking for a director-specific making of will be satisfied with an Interview With Lech Majewski (19:53), as the director breaks down his personal inspiration and what led him to make the film. A photo gallery and a selection of trailers are also included.
The Mill and The Cross is all about placement and meaning, but remains distant emotionally throughout it's ninety minute running time. It can be easily Recommended on that basis, but the drama that Bruegel breathes life into on the canvas is missing in this technically accomplished picture.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...