Biopics can be as tiresome and formulaic a genre as any other. At their worst they never manage to engage with the creativity of their subject. Director Lech Majewski is an artist as well as a filmmaker and approaches the cinematic image like a painter. There have been great films about painters that forego conventional narratives before but Majeswki has done something unusual with this remarkable computer generated recreation of Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Way to Calvary’ (1564). Paul Cox’s beautiful documentary Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh (1987) has John Hurt reading letters by the painter to his brother Theo accompanied by images of his work. In Victor Erice’s The Quince Tree Sun (1992) the director filmed artist Antonio Lopez as he attempted to complete a painting of a tree in his garden while reminiscing about his past. Raul Ruiz’s Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (1977) might come closest to The Mill and the Cross with an art curator speculating on the meaning of a painting yet the work of art in question is fictional. Majewski takes this further by actually placing the artist inside his creation as he puts it together.
Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) is first seen moving through the landscape arranging costumes on the figures in his painting as if he was a film director organising his set. King Philip II of Spainhad taken control of Flanders and had decreed heretics should be put to death. Bruegel is helpless in the face of this brutality so he functions as an observer and his painting is a form of protest at the treatment his people are receiving at the hands of Spanish soldiers. Michael York plays a rich benefactor and essentially performs expository duties for the audience explaining the political situation in an understated dignified way which is surprisingly moving. People are cruelly dispatched in The Mill and the Cross but their end is surveyed in a manner which seems almost dispassionate by Majewski. Yet he is simply observing like Bruegel. There is nothing to be done for these people who are beaten and hoisted into the air for the crows to finish off, or buried alive. There is an absurdity to these scenes which is at once comic and deeply sad emphasising the pointlessness of these executions and their horror.
At the centre of the painting is Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion. Charlotte Rampling plays Mary, Mother of Christ whose lament “there must have been a reason he was born” is I think the saddest line in a film I’ve heard this year. This theme of loss permeates the film, not just through death but how very far the Catholic Church in the 16th century fell away from the teachings of Christ and instead recreated the kind of religious persecution he faced. There is no real narrative, the dialogue is minimal and non-realistic. The purpose of the film is entirely about making the audience understand the meaning of the painting. The Mill and the Cross closes with a scene showing ‘The Way to Calvary’ hanging in the sterile environment of a museum amongst all the other paintings like a John Doe lying in a morgue. Credit to Majewski bringing the figures in Bruegel’s painting back to life in such an illuminating manner.
As of yet there are no plans for a UK release in cinemas or on DVD but there’s a decent region free US release available for import.