The unlikeliest of outlets introduces classic art to youth today. Spongebob acquainted the pajamaed youth worldwide with Nosferatu. A football spectator holds up a sign reading “John 3:16” and Google bursts with queries. The work of 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder received a revival of sorts with the success of the indie folk band Fleet Foxes and their eponymous debut album, which featured Bruegel’s chaotic Netherlandish Proverbs as its cover. Contemporary exposure to antiquated art through these casual jabs resurrects what may have been forgotten and makes it, dare I say it, fashionable. This all operates on the surface level, however, and cannot be substituted for an in-depth analysis. The Mill and The Cross elevates the conversation and literally steps inside Bruegel the Elder’s work for a beautiful, haunting and very perplexing study of a genius.
That being said, this film sides more on the side of art appreciation than evaluation. Tracking Bruegel’s process on one of his masterpieces, The Procession to Calvary, the film takes a minimalist approach. Director Lech Majewski tosses potent images onto the screen and lets them speak for themselves. The camera follows its many actors from a distance, not unlike the broad, noisy works of Bruegel. Beloved cineaste techniques like deep focus give the audience the choice of where to pay attention. This detached style evokes the artist’s own. The vast amount of details that Bruegel pores over on his vast canvas inspires awe. The film eschews didactics as a result ⎯ not a poor choice ⎯ but manages to focus more on the aesthetic brilliance of Bruegel’s work rather than its broader implications.
Or perhaps it does. The film lacks a typical narrative, so no value can be gleaned from the plot or character progression. Bruegel the Elder was affectionately known as “Peasant Bruegel” for his attention and glorification of his own social strata, and the filmmakers knew this. There is little dialogue for as long as 25 minutes at a time. These periods, which are more a hypnotic curiosity than a bore, depict the mundane, cruel and even goofy lives of the peasant through a beautiful lens. The beginning, which follows many families waking up and starting their day, moves lethargically. But stay with it.
The pure beauty of these scenes, captured by cinematographers Adam Sikora and Majewski himself, speaks on a more intimate level, justifying the film’s aesthetic priorities. The opening scene stuns. Bruegel (the immensely talented Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner and, yes, Hobo with a Shotgun) walks through a tableau of his painting with his patron (Michael York). Bruegel approaches a woman, frozen in place, to adjust the train of her dress. There is no apparent motive for this action, but he deems it necessary and continues to tweak the trivial as he sees fit. Bruegel cares about the smallest details. There are two scenes where the action halts. These scenes stand as the most impressive and support Majewski’s distant study of Bruegel, raising questions above his art but not providing answers. No one has them, after all.
Christian imagery serves as the director’s language of sorts; don’t forget the subject of the film is a painting called The Procession to Calvary. Scenes of shocking brutality appear suddenly, but they are more disturbing for the apathetic viewpoint the camera takes than the actual violence. It’s already distressing to watch a man being whipped dozens of times bleed profusely. What’s more troubling is that the film suggests that the heinous act is really not a big deal. This reflects the minuscule presence of Jesus Christ in the painting, easily glossed over on a casual glance. These strong visual metaphors will resonate personally with those who have a passion for art history or Christianity.
The windmill towering above the subjects of the painting, which inspires half of the film’s title, finds its way into many shots. Whether Bruegel studies a valley of peasants below or a woman mourns the loss of her son in her own home, the windmill stares across fields, through windows and under arches. The miller, framed with commanding, vertical shots reminiscent of the religious drama Black Narcissus, is perched atop his windmill. Bruegel comments that instead of showing God staring from the heavens in his painting, he wants a mortal to be the all-seeing eye. The characters cannot hide from judgment, just as the film cannot escape Bruegel’s influence.
Lech Majewski tackles this subject with moving portraits. Taking on a genius at his own game will not end well. In that sense, The Mill and the Cross does not analyze art but praises the artist’s dreams and the admirer’s struggles to decode them. Bruegel’s painting comes alive and Majewski invites us to marvel at the detail and heart that an artist infused on a scene so sad.