[10 February 2012]
Pieter Brueghel’s “The Way to Calvary” is a large painting of many figures in a surreal landscape. With his master’s eye for detail and perspective, he packed the canvas with the almost hidden story of Christ bearing his cross to Golgotha. Part of the strangeness is that the scene is reimagined as taking place in 16th Century Flanders, and the Roman soldiers are replaced by the Spanish soldiers who currently terrorized the country, crucifying heretics (in the name of the holy church) across wheels jutting into the sky. Thus Brueghel combined an angry political statement with a nominally holy subject, creating a masterpiece with many levels of meaning in his typically beautiful, arresting, intense, numinous, almost grotesque style.
Although Christ is at the center of the picture, the viewer’s eye is distracted by the multifarious dramas around him, and this is part of the painter’s philosophy of how cataclysmic events happen almost unnoticed while life goes on. W.H. Auden expressed this idea in a famous poem on Brueghel’s “Fall of Icarus”.
In a way, Lech Majewski’s The Mill & the Cross is less a film than a tableau bringing the painting to life with actors and revealing the historical context through incidents and direct speeches delivered by the painter (Rutger Hauer) and his patron (Michael York). A Flanders’ version of Christ’s mother Mary (Charlotte Rampling, offering her own weathered intensity) offers voiceovers as she stares upon the proceedings. It’s almost a static series of lectures and living dioramas, yet it’s cinematic through the sheer wondrousness of the multilayered images, which make us feel we enter into the painting and its time.
It’s a “museum piece” of a movie that reminds me of some films of Peter Greenaway (who also makes cinema out of other arts, uses layered images, and has provocatively earthy and bloody images) and Majewski’s fellow Pole Zbigniew Rybczynski (who made amazing layered videos with classical music). Despite these and other resonances (Majewski himself brings up Fellini’s love for grotesque faces), it’s a film influenced most profoundly and obviously by Brueghel, a tribute from one artist to another. A 45-minute making-of and a brief interview with Majewski add good background.