The Mill and the Cross

Of all the shows and clips and films that I’ve ever watched that were made by and performed by Monty Python – there is one line that for some reason I’ve never forgotten. It is when three red-robed, faux-16th century pseudo-clerics bounce into a modern day room making the announcement that “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

In Monte Python, the inquisition would show up at the most inopportune times and in the most unexpected of places. The point being that the Inquisition itself was really just a smaller and more immediate and local version of a religious war. No one, with all the certainty that they might muster, ever wanted the terror of religious persecution to come knocking at their door.

Well that Inquisition is at the center of Polish Film director Lech Majewski’s film called The Mill and the Cross. Actually it is the 16th century artist Pieter Bruegel who is at the center – and even more specifically, it is his painting called The Way to Cavalry that is the subject of the film. But it is not just that simple.

As my film discussion/review colleague, Didion of the Feminema website has just done a post on this film, and two others here, with the aim being to bring to our attention the fact that not every film is about super heroes, cops, drugs, warfare, comic books, cartoons, or sex. Some films don’t depend on a narrative plot or on dialogue. In fact, this film’s methodology is innovative and new. It crosses film with art, and art history, and that’s just the starting point. In her view this is so cutting edge that it is worthwhile to invest your time to watch these films.

Basically the film is how Bruegel created his painting but it is not told in the way it might be if it were a TV documentary, or a historical drama, or if it was a lecture in an art history course in college.

Through animation, cgi effects, green screens, and other modern day marvels of film technology, as well as a stupendous amount of imagination and live actors – we are transported back to 16th century Flanders. We meet Bruegel played by Rutger Hauer, his wife Mary, played by Charlotte Rampling, and his patron played by Michael York.

At the start of the movie, Bruegel is still working on the design of the painting. We see sketches, and we hear him as he explains the why, and the what, and the how that go into the painting. He tells us that he watched a spider whose web of concentric circles, all connected by a latticework, is his inspiration for the painting’s design.

But again that is a simplification as well. The film brings the painting to life is one way to describe it. Another way is to say that we enter the painting and see the lives of the people portrayed within the painting as they really are – which means full dimensionality, motion, action, and sounds.

If this still seems a bit hazy or unclear – I’ll cut to the chase. and remove all of the mystery shortly. But before that, I will mention or add the remaining key element about the film’s structure – the film is actually three stories woven one into each of the others – and that in itself is nothing short of amazing. The stories are:

1) The Painting, its creator, and its creation in the time frame of when the painting was made.
2) The Passion of Christ
3) The Passion of Christ brought forward from when it happened more than 2000 years ago, to a time in the 1560’s. To a place we now call Flanders or Belgium. At a time when the Spanish Inquisition was what the folks of that time and place lived with and faced beyond their basic day to day schedules or activities.

First the painting itself: The Way to Calvalry or it is also called The Procession to Cavalry. It’s kind of overwhelming in that so much is going on. But when you get inside of the groupings, and see the activities of these people, then the power of this art work grows exponentially.

Now that you’ve seen the painting, actually I won’t say any more, I’ll cheat and won’t tell you in my own words, I won’t try to describe the film any longer. But I will show you the film’s trailer. After that you’re on your own about what to make of the film. Sort of a DIY exercise. Following the trailer, there will be a short commentary on my own reactions.

The film to me is a marvelous concept but I’m not sure it satisfies beyond its originality. The experience of watching it – at least in the first 28 minutes which lack spoken language, is more for the excellent audio aspects rather than the visuals. In one segment it is early morning. The setting is a mist covered countryside. We hear a sound approaching from a distance. We’re not sure but eventually we see a group of men on their horses approaching. Visually they come from out of the mist – but the highlight is the sound.

Similarly we find ourselves in the bowels of the mill. Three people awaken and immediately begin their labors. One must climb to the top of the structure to set the windmill in motion. His heavy wooden shoes make an unbelievable amount of noise as he clambers up a staircase.  It is shocking in its clarity. For certain, you’ve never heard anything like it in your lives – either in your personal lives, or your experiences in watching films. Yes it is that memorable that I must make mention.

But aside from when Hauer and York discuss the painting – the rest of the time we get a series of tableaux – this is when the figures we see in still life in the painting take on motion and become alive. Their lives take place for the most part as a hellish existence. The Inquisition was brutal, swift, and there was no judicial system in play.

In the above image, you see Bruegel before his painting. It appears as a still scene but as you watch horses lift their feet, or swish their tails. In the distance people move or are doing something. And then we will merge into the painting and see and hear what was going on.

For example a young couple bring a young calf out the countryside. They buy a bread and sit down to a picnic. Moments later the red tunic-ed Spanish come riding in. They roust the man, beat and rough him up. He is then tied down on a circular platform which is mounted on what we might call a telephone pole today. The pole is erected. This man who might be dead or might be alive is far above ground and beyond anyone’s help. The purpose is not explained but we do see what happens after in alarming detail. Carrion birds eventually come – attracted by the smell of the blood, and begin to make a meal of him.

Other images in the painting come to life – a man rolls a wheel along a path on the hillside. He could easily carry it, but he keeps it rolling. A beautiful woman stands by the road. A man comes and circles round and round her. He admires her. We assume there is lustful thinking going on in his mind. But he does nothing and she does nothing. Children play. Musicians make music and dance. The painting represents life and we see many and various aspects of it.

There’s your film. But remember, there’s still the Passion of Christ, and the re-enactment of it.I won’t comment on it except to say that we will see Christ driven through the streets. He’s forced to drag his own cross. He’s crucified. The soldiers gamble for his robe. He’s taken down off the cross.

One last comment. If you read about this painting in a book – that’s one kind of experience. If you visit a museum, in this case Bruegel’s painting is in a museum in Vienna, and sit before the actual painting and study it – that’s the same experience but only it is not a representational image in a book; it is the actual painting. In this film we see the painting – enter the painting, we watch the people who are in the painting come to life in a full, living dimension – that’s again the same experience as the other two – but it is amped up in the sense that now everything that’s in the painting is now alive.

As for what Bruegel wants us to think about his art, or what Majewski’s motivation’s are, or what he wants us to take away with us after viewing the film, I won’t venture a guess on either. This isn’t a film for everyone. In fact, I venture to say, that not many have seen it, or would want to. I’m not going to rate this film. Nor recommend it. Didion already did that. You should be able to make a decision to watch it from the trailer. It’s up to you.

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2 thoughts on “The Mill and the Cross

  1. You keep saying that the Inquisition or the execution of Jesus is at the center of the film, but what I find so moving about the painting and the film is that those events are just small parts of a big, messy, complex scene — the point is that they’re *not* at the center. It’s so disconcerting because Bruegel (and Majewski) want to show how easy it is not to see what Christians later came to believe was the most important historical event of history. That’s what’s so moving — we really do feel more for the regular Joe guy who’s beaten up and left to get eaten by crows than we do for Jesus, who’s mostly offscreen.

    We feel just as powerfully for that pile of children romping around the house as for Mary’s lament. I feel that the film is so brilliant because it shows us that we’re blind, blinded by every thing in front of us. It’s humbling, this film — even as much as it demands that we become more attentive to the world around us. But it also admits that the crush of detail conspires to make us more blind.

    • I can’t agree. Bruegel said to the patron – that he hides Jesus because he is the most important.But was that to deflect attention away? He also pointed out the most eyes were on Simon, the first disciple. Meaning that they had already abandoned Jesus.

      While we feel for the guy who was beaten for no discernible reason – it seemed that Majewski made it a point to blame the inquisition for that.

      Yes the world was big and messy – per Bruegel – there was a lot going on. But not necessarily per Lech Majewski. I think that Majewski took great pains to show us that the world was a mess. He even indicated that the Miller/God was dissatisfied. But he tied it to the persecution by the foreign element – which in this case were the Spanish Inquisitors who were at odds with the Protestants.

      Personally I was affected by the plight of the children. I was also horrified by them. They rough-housed between themselves because there were no alternatives. They stop when the mother says something – but the moment she turned her back to them – they went right back it.

      Yes the film was moving. It took time and a strong devotion to bring it to the screen. I think I read that it was three years in the making. But if Bruegel wasn’t making the painting about the Passion of Christ why was it called The Way to Cavalry. And why if Lech Majewski wasn’t intending that the film be just about religion – why did recreate the crucifixion?

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