The Old Masters, How Well They Understood
Renaissance man composer-librettist-painter-poet-novelist-cameraman-screenwriter-filmmaker Lech Majewski ingeniously melds several of his fields in The Mill and the Cross. The result will delight true film fans in its intertwining of the moving image with the seeming static one of sketches on paper and oil on canvas -- seeming, because attention to the painting by the Fleming Pieter Brueghel the Elder reveals the painterly captured busy-ness of quotidian motion in the framed museum pieces of concluding film frames.
The first notable aspect is a digitally enhanced innovative technique of layered 2D backdrop to the integrated shooting of actors before a blue screen and on four-nation locations similar to those of the painting. The story itself, only partially that of the Crucifixion moved to the contemporary 1564 Low Countries of the panoramic The Way to Calvary, involves a selection of several characters from the five hundred of that painting, both participants in the Passion and bystanders to it, the daily life of rustics, and the artist studying them as figures to populate his work.
That story not only suggests oppression by occupying forces, be they Roman legionaries in Judea or Spanish cohorts in Flanders fifteen hundred years later, but also the daily lower-case passions, activities, and fear of the population and the powerlessness of local leaders which parallels the helplessness of God the Father, here an unsmiling Miller (Marian Makula) brooding down from his creaking wooden mill with cruciform fan-blades atop an impossible rock spire.
Father can do nothing but watch, just as the Virgin Mary (a difficult-to-understand Charlotte Rampling) cannot intercede for her Son but only gaze up at His suffering on a low cross and, later, in the open cave-tomb, at his dirty feet. Skies may darken and rumble, but the unnamed Jesus’ (Bartosz Capowicz) Crucifixion is low and in this world no more noted than that of the young peasant (Mateusz Machnik) snatched from his wife after lovemaking to be scourged and spread-eagled on a much higher wagon-wheel for carrion crows to peck at.
Implicit in this is what Auden verbalized in ”Musée des Beaux Arts,” also reflecting on a Brueghel painting, where suffering goes unnoticed by others who continue their plowing or fishing unmindful of Icarus’ fall and drowning off to a lower corner.
Far from his days as the “Dutch Paul Newman” specializing in inhuman evil and strength, Rutger Hauer portrays the painter Brueghel, who is sometimes with Marijken (Joanna Litwin), his wife of thirty years. Outsized sketchbook in hand, he is more often out and about, observing the landscapes and countrymen who unknowingly serve as his models. Brueghel in the foreground and real actors and stone wall in the middle ground, imperceptibly flow into the grainier artist-painted distance. Occasionally the painter wanders into the living part of the “painting,” rearranging the fold of an article of clothing here and there.
Or he may discuss his purposes and perceptions with aristocrat Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York). Patron and friend but not himself an artist, the latter provides political and social commentary, often to wife Saskja (Dorota Lis), the two of them stiffly seated as though posing or perhaps already on a canvas or framed as if on a wall in their window looking at events moving along the via dolorosa beneath.
They are not the only ones both “real” and frozen in art. Traveling vendors, musicians, farmers, housewives and children, too, are moving “alive” and sometimes stopped in their activities; or they are carefully framed in doorway compositions or, indoors, sidelit from windows as in Brugghen, Honthorst, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Steen and, most famously, Vermeer. Indeed, the latter’s Allegory of the Art of Painting -- on painting inspired by history -- would not be out of place as a subtitle for this film that “step[s] inside a great work of art,” where the viewer can experience (and create) alongside Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
(Released by Koch Lorber; not rated by MPAA.)