Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Edge of Art: The Mill and the Cross

In The Mill and the Cross a vast landscape and a vast canvas are one and the same. Director Lech Majewski’s overlong but unforgettable film, based on a book by Michael Francis Gibson, observes Pieter Bruegel as he conceives his 1564 work The Way to Calvary, in which the Passion is reimagined in a valley in Flanders, with Spanish soldiers doling out the abuse normally ascribed to Romans. As the movie opens, Bruegel stands in front of a panorama of not-quite-still activity that represents either what the painting will be or what it is already. Dozens of live figures – mostly humans, but also horses, cows and so on – stand as if posing, and Bruegel looks upon them as if examining an instant in time. The Way to Calvary doesn’t come to life in this film so much as life becomes The Way to Calvary. The film follows Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer, as he walks through his hometown and finds inspiration to put into his painting, or it follows him as he metaphorically walks through his painting and sees his community within it. Maybe both. It’s difficult to tell where the real ends and the imagined begins.

That’s the joy of The Mill and the Cross, which at its best demonstrates that paintings, while static, aren’t inanimate. Majewski’s film both burrows within the painting and explores beyond its frame. We enter the rocky precipice wherein the miller lives and works with his family, before ultimately standing like God above the activity below. We enter the home of a modest couple who share their living space with a cow. We enter a forest where a tree is being felled, eventually to become an apparatus for torture. These vignettes aren’t at the core of the visual narrative depicted in The Way to Calvary, but they are part of its apparent overall message: Bruegel’s painting suggests that the cruelty of the powerful and the apathy of the masses that must have been present in Jesus Christ’s bloody walk to Golgotha could be found in his own era, too. And not unlike the way Bruegel enlivened the Passion through a modernization of setting, Majewski enlivens The Way to Calvary through a modernization of form, as an inert painting becomes animated cinema.

There’s no question that this alteration changes the depth of The Way to Calvary, but whether it enhances it is another matter. As far as The Mill and the Cross feels from the 3-D pictures that are chewing up about 20 percent of the screens at multiplexes these days, the effect is strangely reminiscent: Majewski’s film takes us “into” the painting and allows us to look around, but the depth of clarity it provides is inconsistent, and for each amplification there is also an inherent reduction. What’s lost is our ability to gaze upon The Way to Calvary and control our own focus, find our own perspective, build our own narrative. What’s gained is a kind of multidimensionality that a painting lacks, but this enhancement is only relative. The Mill and the Cross has no distinct narrative or Syd Field-prescribed conflict. It has little discernable dialogue. And it features a performance by Charlotte Rampling that would be considered a brief cameo if it wasn’t also the female lead. Majewski’s film provides “depth,” by one definition of the word, but it begs to be filled in. Like James Cameron’s Avatar, the way The Mill and the Cross depicts its story is arresting, but what it depicts is wearisome.

Of course, mileage will vary. The woman seated behind me in the small, sparsely populated theater broke into brief yet confident applause as the film ended. The guy off to my left accosted an usher to tell her how much he hated it. Neither reaction particularly surprised me. The Mill and the Cross is dazzling in snippets, but it’s never more powerful than in its first 15 minutes, and after that it begins to feel like an experiment gone too far. It would make a fantastic short film, but even at 92 minutes Majewski leaves too much of his canvas unpainted. This is a minimalist production in every respect but two: running time and creative vision. The Way to Calvary is an epic.


Richard Bellamy said...

You are right. This film is a curiosity, at times visually stunning, at times tedious (the miller going up the many steps to the top of the mill). I sometimes enjoyed its sort of Terry Gilliamesque art direction. And I like Bruegel's theme: Jesus gets whipped and crowned with thorns, but elsewhere little rascal kids make farting noises with their armpits.

Jason Bellamy said...

Funny: I liked the many steps of the mill; the arm-pit noise kids grew tedios almost instantly.

Gilliamesque is right. Also, parts of it reminded me of Tim Burton, particularly that side-cut view of the inside of the mill. And yet to drop those two names to someone who hadn't seen the movie would be completely misleading.

Sam Juliano said...

Just wanted to add that this visually intoxicating and pictorially electrifying film rates for me among the best films of 2011, and will surely show up on my ten best list. I am thrilled that you focused your tasteful and discerning magnifying glass on it in this marvelously descriptive and poetic piece. Yeah, I can see the "overlong" argumment too, but I let it go. I agree that the first 15 minutes stand out most compellingly.