Apollo’s Girl

The Mill and the Cross: Renaissance Modern (film forum)

If you love winter light pierced by color; if you love ultimate art married to ultimate craftsmanship; if you love Renaissance aesthetics and politics matched by technical wizardry that reveals them anew and, most of all, if you want to see into the obsessive brilliance of Pieter Breughel the Elder matched by fimmaker Lech Majewski, you must not miss The Mill and the Cross.

Breughel painted The Way to Calvary in 1564, its canvas teeming with men and women accompanying Christ on his journey to death and transfiguration. Yet these more than 500 travelers of antiquity are dressed in rich-hued Renaissance costumes representing the Spanish soldiers who occupied Breughel’s Belgium during the Inquisition, the princes of the church, the burghers of Antwerp, and the peasants whose tenuous lives of hardship made the lives of all others possible.

Based on Michael Gibson’s book of the same name, The Mill and the Cross reinvents a biblical event interpreted by a great painter and wrenches us into its reality, focusing first on characters drawn out of the marching crowd, then creating a day for them to interact as they did in Brueghel’s time.

Breughel himself (Rutger Hauer), his friend and patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), and the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) briefly enter and leave the action from time to time, but the film is really about the painting itself and the life within it. It’s a knockout!

While aesthetes will have a field day with the saturated colors and chilly landscapes of northern Europe, film buffs will celebrate Majewski’s achievements: incorporating CG technology and holographic effects, “weaving an enormous digital tapestry composed of layer upon layer of perspective, atmospheric phenomena, and people” shot in Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria and New Zealand. One of the most captivating scenes is the interior of the mill (seen as a tiny and improbable structure atop a distant mountain in the painting), as huge wooden gears, levers, and wheels moan and and shriek, grinding the grain that feeds the procession.  

Where the film succeeds most spectacularly is in allowing the viewer to enter its universe directly. It’s both unsettling and hypnotic at the same time. There’s discomfort with the casual cruelty portrayed on canvas and mirrored on film, and fascination with the sensual images, music, and movement that doesn’t end until the film is over and the viewer relinquishes its life as it transforms back into Brueghel’s canvas.

Majewski has a passion for art, music, sound and words. It has served him well as creator of The Mill and the Cross, as writer of Basquiat, director of stage versions of Carmen and Threepenny Opera, and as director of several films deploying his multi-displinary talents. It is likely that Kino-Lorber will release a DVD of The Mill and the Cross next year but, to be honest, it is best relished on the big screen. Just see it any way you can.

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