Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, 2011)

I cannot say that The Mill and the Cross fully captivated me, for I confess I was lost during some stretches of its plotless reverie. Nevertheless, at no point did Lech Majewski's film fail to fascinate me. As a work of criticism that explicates Bruegel's painting The Way to Calvary, it reminds me of some of Godard's most structuralist early-'70s work, breaking down and giving voice to each component of the composition. As an experiment, its striking use of digital animation to blur the line between reality and painted backgrounds makes for beautifully unique CGI as that technology grows increasingly stale.

Majewski inhabits Bruegel's painting as the artist (played by Rutger Hauer) conceives of the opus. Offering no grounding element for the audience, the director launches immediately into a reality-blurring recreation not only of the painting but the historical context around it. Juxtaposing Bruegel's conception of the painting with the lives of the people it depicts, The Mill and the Cross blends its aesthetic critique with a historical one, making a subtle but unmistakable case for the importance of art as a reflection of culture even as it carves out new paths for that culture to follow.

The film can be impenetrable for those not familiar with the painting, so a quick word on that. Bruegel's Calvary recasts the Passion in contemporary Flanders, then under the rule (and persecution) of Spain, which acquired the county after the Eighty Years' War. Reacting to the wave of Protestant conversion that swept Flanders, the Catholic Philip II enacted a brutal repression of the Flemish with the approval of the Inquisition. Bruegel's painting, at its most basic level, recasts the Spanish (and, by extension, the Catholic Church) as the pharisaical force quelling a radical, but peaceful and loving, new religion.

But it is about so much more that, as we learn from Bruegel's discussions with the art collector and investor who gives the artist patronage. Hauer, hunched over his sketches, eyes darting up to get another survey of the land, speaks with all the intensity he brings to his other roles. Yet he speaks only of the painting and of the meaning of each aspect of it. Drawing lines to the focal point of the cross he places in the middle distance, Bruegel assigns symbolic and thematic meaning for everything around that center. The city seen in the top life comes to represent life; the circle of spectators already waiting for the execution at Calvary stand for death.

Majewski then fleshes out the elements of the painting even more as he slips into the tacit, unforgiving lives of the people seen in each aspect of the arrangement. We see the "tree of death" erected when Spanish guards capture a man and beat him to death, tying him to a wheel that they then hoist on a giant pole for the sport of crows. The woman playing the role of the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) whispers in voiceover about her doomed son, Rampling's impassive face quivering from the effort of holding back her grief. Then there's the miller residing in that precariously perched mill overlooking the painting; even before Bruegel clarifies the man's role in his painting, the miller resembles God in his silence and food-giving occupation.

Over time, the lives of the people in the painting bleed into the "reality" of Bruegel's present, and eventually everything sublimates into the artist's subjective perception, which places those painted backgrounds into the open air of the countryside and forces the bourgeois collector into emotional involvement with the Christ figure he comes to mourn. In the film's most incredible scene, Bruegel signals to the overlooking miller, who halts the Earth with a wave, Bruegel's own creation now offering divine inspiration for the painter. It's a beautiful visual statement on how the artist views the world, as well as the way that reality and imagination combine.

Granted, it can be hard to follow the film at times as it drifts between the world within the painting and without. Those who found The Tree of Life confusing would likely explode at this film's plotless movement. But Majewski's direction makes for a fascinating work of art-as-critique, exploring The Way to Calvary as not merely a picture but a crystallized moment. Obtuse as it can be, The Mill and the Cross is an excellent way to introduce people to the concept of analytical criticism, of viewing a work of art as more than a surface-element recreation and analyzing its content, its form, and its context. As I walked out of the theater, I heard no fewer than four people say something to the effect of, "Well, it looked pretty but that story was awful!" Judging from that, we could use a few more films teaching us about what truly goes into crafting a piece of art.

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