All art can contain multitudes, it is said, and what Lech Majewski does in The Mill & the Cross is to lift the veil on the multitudes contained in Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. On paper, admittedly, the idea may come across as a bit of a dry art-history lecture; Mr. Majewski, himself an artist with a long career in the New York art world, expands on art historian Michael Francis Gibson's interpretive essay by deconstructing the painting into smaller elements, decoding the significance of their usage by Brueghel both in artistic and historical terms.
But there isn't anything dry, dull or remotely opaque about Mr. Majewski's sweepingly visualized feature. Blending live action shot on location in with digitally created landscapes mimicking Brueghel's style, the director painstakingly creates a masterful, pictorial puzzle that is also an entrancing polaroid of medieval times. He elaborates simultaneously on the demiurgic power of art, its ambiguity of interpretation, its capacity to stop time; by doing so, he focuses the viewer on what really matters, on every single little detail that enriches the whole picture, and makes his effort not merely a flight of fancy but a richly presented portrait of a time and a space.
Our guides throughout are Rutger Hauer as Brueghel and Michael York as his friend and patron Jonghelinck, discussing in classical, Socratic dialogues the Flanders of the 16th century that gave rise to the work while we follow people going about their daily lives. Thus does a telling of Jesus' "way to the calvary" become a metaphor of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, as well as an erudite circle of life that is simultaneously profoundly pagan and deeply religious; thus does Mr. Majewski open a richly imagined, wondrously detailed window on the past that carries a particularly important message for our times. This is that time rewards art in a unique way; patience is key, the need to "stop and smell the roses" is a door that ought to be opened and is often left unopened.
On paper, The Mill & the Cross seems like a Peter Greenaway-esque arty puzzle; on screen, despite its similarity to the British director's alluring Nightwatching, it's anything but, a seductive, enveloping experience thar draws its viewer in without ever condescending to him.
Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling.
Director, Lech Majewski; screenplay, Michael Francis Gibson, Mr. Majewski, inspired by the painting by Pieter Brueghel The Way to Calvary; cinematography, Mr. Majewski, Adam Sikora (colour); music, Mr. Majewski, Józef Skrzek; designers, Kataryzna Sobańska. Marcel Sławiński; costumes, Dorota Roqueplo; editors, Eliot Ems, Norbert Rudzik; visual effects, Páweł Tybora, Mr. Rudzik; producer, Mr. Majewski (Angelus Silesius with co-financing from the Polish Film Institute, in co-production with Polish Television, Bokomotiv Filmproduktion, Odeon Film Studio, Supra Film, Arkana Studio, Piramida Film, 24 Media and Silesia Film), Poland/Sweden, 2010, 92 minutes.
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Classic Alvalade 4, June 21st 2012.