Combustible Celluloid
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With: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling
Written by: Lech Majewski, Michael Francis Gibson
Directed by: Lech Majewski
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 97
Date: 01/23/2011

The Mill and the Cross (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Strokes of Genius

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes movies are called "painterly," but it's not often that a movie is based on an actual painting. I can think of very few: The Quince Tree Sun (1993) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) come to mind. Also Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002), which is about a museum rather than a specific painting, but uses a "painterly" quality of its own.

Now we can add Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross to that short list. Based on Pieter Bruegel's "The Way to Calvary," from 1564, the movie patiently and delicately outlines many of the themes in the painting, even though the film itself can be somewhat drifting and opaque. It's quite unlike the anchored, physical quality of a painting; it's something rather different.

The film is set in Flanders, but three international movie stars appear and speak English. No other dialogue is ever spoken. Rutger Hauer plays Pieter Bruegel, at work on his masterpiece and explaining it all to his friend, art collector Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Charlotte Rampling plays Mary, the mother of Jesus, forever distraught over the fate of her son.

Several themes and storylines are interwoven throughout the film. In some scenes, there are images of a giant mill, grinding away and making grain for bread. The Spanish are the bad guys here, violent, brutal occupiers, and quick to crucify anyone deemed a heretic. A simple farmer and his wife are out buying bread when the Spanish swoop in, capture the man, tie him to a wagon wheel and raise the wheel atop a post, so that he can have his eyes plucked out by vultures. Jesus is crucified here, too, even though the timeline isn't quite right. The movie doesn't mean to suggest that Jesus actually existed in 1564, just that Bruegel painted him in 1564.

To the untrained or impatient eye, it can seem like so much plotless rambling. But descriptions of the plot and the movie's actions and incidents are beside the point. The images themselves are striking, and are somewhat reminiscent of Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001). Some of them seem naturalistic -- such as shots of children playing in their bedroom -- but there's often a hint of something unearthly, a kind of gloss, as if the moment were already captured and not actually happening. Indeed, there's a great deal of thought about the nature of such moments, and how an artist goes about capturing them.

All of the squirming moments of life in the movie eventually become parts of the final painting. It's not a making-of movie, nor does it tell the story of the individual subjects in the painting. It's also not exactly art imitating life, or art imitating art. It's more like art becoming art.

Extras on Kino's 2012 DVD include a 44-minute making-of featurette, a 20-minute interview with the director (in English), a stills gallery (which probably should have included a still of the actual painting), and a trailer. Viewers are encouraged to see this one on Blu-Ray, if at all possible, since the texture of the movie is so minute and detailed.

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