Film Review: The Mill and the Cross

Highly original, visually stunning interpretation of famous Pieter Bruegel masterpiece should delight discriminating filmgoers embracing this unique journey into art, history, religion and haunting cinematic experiment.

With The Mill and the Cross, Lech Majewski embraces a daunting challenge: Make Pieter Bruegel's panoramic masterpiece The Way to Calvary, with its hundreds of characters in a dark pastorale, come alive onscreen in authentic locations and by honoring Flemish history and the Bibical story itself as the artist depicted it. In achieving so much, the film ingeniously replicates the painting itself—the characters, buildings, the pastoral sweep, quaint walled city, invading Spanish militia, and the crucifixion of Christ.

Like the painting, the film, making much of light and shadow, takes place in 1564 Flanders, where the Spaniards have invaded and brutalize the locals. Amidst the horrors, painter Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) conceives his masterpiece. But he’s a homebody, sharing a modest, crowded cottage with wife Marijken (Joanna Litwin) and a brood of unruly kids.

Fortunately, he has wealthy patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York) to help him financially and serve as a sounding board for his ideas. The film dares to go inside the artist’s head to convey how he was inspired. His composition for the painting, for instance, emerges from his observation of how a spider builds its web.

Although much is seen from the point of view of Bruegel, The Mill and the Cross is a clean narrative and observational excursion beyond his purview. There’s the towering mill of massive wooden mechanisms that looms high above the field and from where the miller (Marian Makula), a surrogate for God, looks out upon so much sorrow: the savage behavior of the invaders, the erection of the crosses and the crucifixions of Christ and the two prisoners that cap the drama. Among the townspeople is the grieving Mary (Charlotte Rampling), aware of Christ’s fate.

With sparse dialogue and occasional voiceover, the film tells its story visually, taking viewers inside the peasant huts, along the cobbled town streets past stone buildings where the Spanish troops might be roaming. Majewski also gives life to sounds, be they nature’s or man’s doing.

One gruesome scene early in the film has the Spaniards attaching a villager to a wheel that is mounted on a pole and allowing birds to feast on the poor soul’s face. Christ’s demise is less savage and his subsequent resurrection is subtly conveyed.

Also evoking the rich canvas of the painting, the quotidian lives of ordinary people are not forgotten. Country folk in the film are normal folk: They love, dance, play period instruments, and manage paths around the many ducks and geese (free-range back then, of course).

Majewski’s lavish production, with locations in Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and New Zealand, achieves this jaw-dropping spectacle to great immersive effect. He used not just his ingenuity but also wonderful resources that were at his disposal, including a cast of hundreds, beautiful sets and locations, and state-of-the-art special effects achieved by the latest computer software. Proof of the film’s power is that some of its imagery—whether dreamscape or detail—sticks in memory.