The Mill and the Cross: A 447-Year-Old Painting Roars Back to Life
dir. Lech Majewski
What comes barreling across time from Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting The Road to Calvary is that the cruelest killing of them all, the crucifixion of the man who loved everyone regardless of their station or past life, took place while everybody else went about their lives, working, eating, dancing, having sex. That even this death didn't make time stop. But this added cruelty might also be considered the only possible redemption: that during horror, joy can still exist. That's why Bruegel's painting depicts Christ in the center of the vast landscape, a tiny figure carrying the wooden cross on his back; the mourning Mary only slightly larger in the foreground; the great wheat-grinding windmill standing on a high cliff in the background; and, in between, about a hundred other figures acting in total ignorance of the crushing of Jesus Christ, the ultimate symbol for resistance to established power.
Those tremendous conflicts are why Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski made the absorbing movie The Mill and the Cross, in which the painting comes alive to deliver its potent message. The film takes liberties that can be challenging to follow, so let go of trying. Action toggles between Bruegel's time and Christ's (sometimes conflating them), and it's a welcome contrast from art-history movies clogged with pedestrian detail.
Majewski is not shy or indirect. Sometimes that means goofy monologues by Bruegel (Rutger Hauer, in a floppy-banged turn that demonstrates perfect restraint) and the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling, majestic sufferer). But that's better than being opaque, as other imaginative adapters of paintings have been—artist Eve Sussman being chief perpetrator here, making big-budget contemporary reimaginings of paintings that give no earthly idea what drew her to the material in the first place. Majewski's The Mill and the Cross—he also cowrote Basquiat and directed 2004's The Garden of Earthly Delights, about a Hieronymus Bosch scholar—is a meditation on the desire to make art in order to stop time. (I'll stop the world and melt with you.) It's wonderful.