An extraordinary imaginative leap, Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross” combines old and new technologies allowing the viewer to live inside the painting — Flemish master Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 “The Procession to Calvary,” an epic canvas depicting both Christ’s crucifixion and the artist’s homeland brutalization by Spanish occupiers. Neither conventional costume drama nor abstract objet d’art, this visually ravishing, surprisingly beguiling gamble won’t fit any standard arthouse niche. Still it could prove the Polish helmer’s belated international breakthrough, especially if marketed as a unique, immersive museum-meets-cinema experience a la Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark.”
Opening setpiece stages the complex painting via a combination of live actors (and horses), bluescreen effects and 2D backdrops. Its crowded landscape features some 500 historical, religious, contemporary and symbolic figures, with biblical travails depicted alongside sufferings of Flemish citizens persecuted by representatives of the Spanish inquisition. We continually revisit this tableau, in whole and part, while other scenes are frequently modeled on several other paintings by Bruegel the Elder.
Representing God atop an enormous windmill tower is a miller (Marian Makula) impassively regarding various scenes from his lofty perch. They include the seizure by red-coated militia of one peasant (Mateusz Machnik) who is tortured and killed for presumed heresy. Later, another hapless soul is literally crucified for some other crime.
Periodically commenting sorrowfully on this state of affairs — either alone or in conversation with the artist — is a wealthy burgher (Michael York) appalled by the invaders’ misrule, even if he himself seems immune from harm. A mother (Charlotte Rampling) whose son has been dragged off to slaughter delivers in voiceover lamentations that are more personal and poetic; she is also the painting’s Virgin Mary model. Meanwhile, Breughel himself (Rutger Hauer) bemusedly explains the hidden meanings scattered throughout his masterwork, often in the form of conflated religious allegory and political protest.
Not everything is grim here, however. Indeed much of “The Mill and the Cross” delights, with episodes of rambunctious humor among some rural ne’er-do-wells and a roving pack of joyfully rowdy children. Life does go on, despite the climate of fear and cruelty.
While hardly an exercise in strict realism a la “The Girl With the Pearl Earring,” the pic details rustic Flanders life with loving care, from costuming to simple machinery. Pic’s narrative content (inspired by co-scenarist Michael Francis Gibson’s nonfiction tome of the same name, which playfully analyzes both painting and its creation) is hardly straightforward or propulsive. Yet the film is never dull, and frequently entrancing.
Lensing wrapped nearly a year and a half ago, followed by lengthy post-production labor resulting in the remarkable mesh of visual elements that recreate Breughel’s art and times. While not intended to be seamless, design contributions are superlative. Sparingly used music hews mostly to instruments of the era. The three international marquee thesps speak in English; all incidental speech, in Spanish and Flemish, goes untranslated.