Watching “The Mill and the Cross” sometimes feels like attending a 1.5-hr visual lecture at art museum. Focusing on one famous painting from the renaissance era, the movie presents its historical background and its small but crucial details to us as it looks around here and there in the world reflected by the painting. This may sound boring to you, but, as one big artistic vision is gradually developed in the wide landscape, we see step by step how the people at that time and their society inspired that vision, and this is a slow but absorbing experience.
The painting in question is “The Procession to Cavalry”, which was painted by Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1564. Its major subject is the biblical image of Jesus Christ carrying his cross, but, as you will see from the painting, he is surrounded by so many other figures in the painting that his suffering looks rather inconsequential even if you finally spot him at the center. While there are familiar figures including his mother Mary, who is placed on the right foreground with others, most of the people in the picture just seem to be occupied with each own matters, and they show no particular interest to what is happening to their fellow human being.
It is also notable that they are all presented as the people of the 16th century, and the movie shows us how Pieter(Rutger Hauer) got that interesting idea through its calm, meditative observation on the daily lives in the Flanders area of Belgium during the 16th century. Around the dawn, everyone in the town begins to wake up one by one as the light comes inside their residences, and we see several domestic sights from different households. A young couple happily begins another day while confirming their mutual endearment to each other, and we later see them preparing to leave their home with a calf. In Bruegel’s house, we see his children being awakened on their common bed, and they have some fun together before having a breakfast in the dining room.
We also see an old couple at the mill, and their place is one of the most impressive sights in the film. Their mill/residence is located inside a tall pinnacle, and we also see a long, dizzy stairway zigzagging from the ground to a big windmill built on the top of the pinnacle. I do not know whether the construction of such things could be possible at that time, but the windmill is one of the crucial elements in Bruegel’s painting, and the movie gives us a fascinating sight of how the mill is operated. After the windmill is untethered by the miller’s assistant, it starts to be slowly turned by the wind, and then the wheels on the ground are turned accordingly to grind grains as the miller’s wife silently watches the progress.
Everything in the landscape looks nice and peaceful as people go through their morning routine, but, as observed by Bruegel and his wealthy patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck(Michael York), it is not a very good time for everyone. As mentioned during their conversations, Flanders and its neighbouring areas were ruled by Spain, and the persecution on resident Protestants was a usual business at that time. We see a woman buried alive by Catholic priests, and we also observe an atrocity committed by the mercenaries wearing red tunics, who suddenly catches a young man and then savagely whip him, kick him, and beat him. Later, we see his body bound to the wheel on the top of a tall wood stick, and you may hope he is already dead considering what happens next. Whatever he committed, he does not deserve such cruelty, like his wife does not deserve her sorrowful pain caused by that.
Life goes on for everyone else, and the same thing can be said about Bruegel and Jonghelinck, who have their brief conversations on Bruegel’s work in progress from time to time. Probably inspired by that horrible incident described above, Bruegel juxtaposes the biblical image with his contemporary environment, so we later get a re-imagined version of the last excruciating hours of Christ decorated with the 16th century background.
The movie is mainly driven by its images and the feelings and thoughts evoked by them, and its beautiful moments, which are usually wordless, are compelling to watch. In case of the opening scene which shows many various figures of “The Procession to Calvary” set in the background before Bruegel and Jonghelinck come into the scene, we come to realize that some are CGIs while others are actors in front of the green screen. The movie dexterously mixes special effects with live action to give us the detailed moments reminiscent of Bruegel’s paintings, and this odd, distinctive mix creates its own reality to draw our attention.
It also gives us some nice insights to how Bruegel planned his work on the painting, and there is a terrific moment when he holds his view in suspension for a moment. He signals to stop the windmill, which is more like God’s windmill/wheel in his artistic view, and everyone is held in their respective spots as soon as it stops. Although we clearly see some actors moving a little bit in this scene, it still feels spellbinding none the less.
The director Lech Majewski, who adapted the screenplay with Michael Francis Gibson from Gibson’s art history book with the same name, made a haunting film I kept thinking about long after watching it. Although I do not have much background knowledge associated with its subject, but its images fascinated me and intrigued me a lot, and I willingly followed it to the end. As expressed in Bruegel’s painting, we have frequently been cruel or indifferent to our fellow human beings throughout the human history, but, as shown during the last moments of the movie, we are at least capable of something far nicer than that.