Published on September 14th, 2011 | by Carlos J. Segura0
“The Mill and the Cross” opens September 14 at Film Forum.
Running Time: 91 Minutes. Unrated.
Film and theatre director Lech Majewski, whose most recognizable credit to general film audiences here in America is “Basquiat,” (as co-producer) has very literally made an art film. Majewski’s latest directorial effort, “The Mill and the Cross,” is an effort that barely has a plot to move; instead it depends on a simple yet experimental concept: taking a painting and recreating it in live-action form on film for 90 minutes or so while still retaining the textures, lines, colors, shadings, etc. of the art it is recreating, namely Peter Bruegel’s “The Way To Calvary.”
“The Way To Calvary” resets the story of Christ’s Passion in Bruegel’s time period, 1564, when Flanders was occupied by the Spanish and in addition to its anachronism the painting is also notable for its attention to the depiction of over 500 figures representing ordinary, countryside folk. Majewski, whose source of inspiration is a book by art critic Michael Francis Gibson, (the film gets its title from this book) executed his live-action exploration of the environs and people of the painting through a combination of much observational filming of the quotidian, while combining footage shot on locations in Eastern Europe and New Zealand that resemble the landscape of “The Way To Calvary,” a 2D backdrop of Bruegel’s painting and actors shot against blue screen.
Surveying the land, as well as creating it simultaneously, is Bruegel himself embodied by the very busy Rutger Hauer, who between “Hobo with a Shotgun” and this is officially the coolest actor of the year for shuttling between two artistic extremes, though, here he is given relatively little to do. Same can be said for Michael York and the always spellbinding Charlotte Rampling, playing the Virgin Mary, though, she mostly maintains poses for the camera while her voiceover plays to her always captivating face (I think I could literally watch her read the phonebook).
Much of what you see in the film is about as unremarkable as it gets with children rising to morning, farm animals going about their business, people roaming the land and so on. The only parts of the film that break from the mundane are portions where the cruelty of the Spanish occupiers is made evident (one grisly example includes a staked man left to die and be fed on by birds) and, of course, the suffering of Christ. Otherwise you’re left to observe, stare, skim, and examine the aesthetic of Bruegel’s work while immersed in it thanks to a sharp and detail-oriented sound design, while able to vicariously experience both the daily, country life of the painting’s period through its flesh and blood humans, as experienced through the vision of Bruegel.
While the idea of giving us an alternative way to relate to a time period and a work of art by melding actors, real locations and graphic, painted representations is an exciting one (the first and best shot at the start of the film is an almost literally breathtaking recreation of the painting itself), the issue is that the film’s strict time and space continuum (you must watch for 90 minutes and only see what the director wants you to see) makes this experiment a bit of a bore after about an hour. Something like this, where you’re essentially watching the dull bits out of a person’s life for much of the running time, would be great as an installation in a museum where the director would scatter various screens within a space with filmed action set across different sections of the painting, or as a video game where you’re free to wander through the painting wherever you like at your own pace as everything happens in real time. In this instance, while there’s no denying the excellence of the visuals, you feel after some time like you’d like to stop being at the mercy of a tour guide and instead be allowed to wander at will.