The Mill and the Cross is a movie inside of a painting, specifically a 1564 painting titled “The Way to Calvary” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Pieter Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) is the main character in the film which takes turns following him as he decides how his painting will take shape and who will be in it, and the local peasants who go about their daily business in middle of 16th century Flanders. The setting is always the actual painting’s background with the mill high up on a rock looking down on a large field where most of the action occurs.
Bruegel’s patron is Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), a successful Flemish banker who spends his time both learning from Bruegel about the people in the painting and what each section represents and pontificating to nobody in particular about the current state of affairs in Flanders. In 1564, Spain ruled what is now Antwerp and Flanders. The Spanish militia seen in the painting in their red tunics seemed to be preoccupied with chasing down and torturing Protestant heretics. There are gruesome scenes in the film with a man tied to a wagon wheel hoisted up in the air with no defense at all while the birds have at him. A woman’s fate is no better as she is shoved alive into an open grave while the red tunics fill the dirt in on top of her.
The painting itself does not show these particular atrocities. Instead, it has Jesus in the center hoisting his own cross towards his crucifixion. The exact moment in the painting captures Simon trying to help Jesus with the cross because Jesus stumbled and fell down. Everyone’s eyes are on Simon at this time instead of Jesus. In the foreground is Mary (Charlotte Rampling). She is helpless as she sits on the sidelines because there is nothing she can do to prevent the red tunics from carrying out their mission. The rest of the painting shows hundreds of peasants either watching the proceeding or going about their chores. Children play games on the hillside, a local peddler sells his bread, a horn player dances around, and above them all, the miller observes from his windmill.
The Mill and the Cross is at its best when Bruegel is explaining his inspiration and how he plans to incorporate all of his ideas and scenes into one large landscape. He looks closely at a spider’s web to discover where the anchor point on his painting will be and how to section off the rest of the action. Just as intriguing are the scenes of everyday life in 1564 Flanders — a young couple gets out of bed and takes their cow to the field for the day; Bruegel’s wife and children wake up after him and get ready for breakfast which is a small slice of bread; the miller and his apprentice ready the mill for the day’s tasks and the large wheels and gears moan into action.
Rutger Hauer is excellent as Pieter Bruegel and he appears to be serving his artistic penance to atone for his ridiculous participation in Hobo with a Shotgun earlier this year. Michael York is taking a break from his voice over work and TV appearances to finally show up in a serious film again. Charlotte Rampling is sort of the odd man (or woman) out here. Her screen time is sparse as Mary and she spends most of the time misty eyed observing all of the peasant movements around her.
The Mill and the Cross is a Polish production directed by Lech Majewski who also aided in adapting the screenplay from a book of the same name by Michael Francis Gibson. The film was an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will most likely earn an Oscar nod for Best Costume Design. The costumes are remarkable and frequently take center stage over the performers.
The film is also a bit reminiscent of Girl with a Pearl Earring but instead of showing how the painting is made from the outside, this time, the filmmakers actually take you inside of the painting itself and walk the viewer on the same landscape as its subjects. There is little dialogue in the film which is not a problem because it is so absorbing to just sit back and watch the peasants wander around the area and watch Bruegel figure out how to tie everything together. I will not give it away, but the final shot of the film is as wonderful as the rest, as the camera backs up and reveals something to the audience.
If you are a movie patron with patience and an interest in art history, The Mill and the Cross is for you. If you get bored in movies without guns, flash bangs, and screaming, stay away.