A mesmerizing collection of images and moments, Lech Majewski’s The Mill & the Cross is the kind of film you want to see on the biggest screen possible. In his filmic adaptation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Renaissance painting “The Way to Calvary,” Majewski has flooded his frames with background detail and minor characters — almost every shot requires the viewer to faithfully scan the image to take it all in. Bruegel’s painting is, of course, much the same way — hundreds of characters packed into the four-foot-by-five-and-a-half-foot canvas.
Majewski’s film acts as both a cinematic recreation of the painting — a large landscape that translates the crucifixion of Christ to 16th Century Flanders as an allegory for Spanish persecution — and as a document of its inspiration. Rutger Hauer stars as the pensive Bruegel, commissioned by collector Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York) to create the work. Bruegel finds a muse in many who surround him: mountaintop millers, traveling musicians, violent Spanish militia.
From Bruegel’s expansive perspective of the village, the film often focuses in tightly on the mundane, the joyful and the tragic. Routines are followed, and in the midst of the daily grind, lovers share a tender morning embrace, children enjoy a breakfast of freshly baked bread, a protestant is ripped from the arms of his family to be crucified on a wagon wheel. But no matter how wonderful or awful the interruptions, the routine advances.
It’s amongst this environment that Bruegel transplants Christ’s crucifixion, observed by a resigned Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) from afar. Bruegel’s painting places this near the center of his canvas, but it’s nowhere near the focal point. Similarly, in Majewski’s images, the subjects often aren’t front-and-center either — a wandering eye is crucial to enjoyment of the film.
Majewski accomplishes all of this with an extraordinary combination of location photography, blue screen composites, digital and practical effects. The end result is something that feels otherworldly — in some cases, highly artificial but undeniably teeming with life and activity all the same.