The restaging of how a painting came to be
Visually ravishing and narratively dry, The Mill & the Cross is a restaging of "The Way to Calvary," the 1564 allegory by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. As art history, the movie is splendid. As a film, it is didactic and photogenic - but not cinematic. This said, it boasts a most imaginative use of computer-generated images and lucid explanation of how a painting came to be.
Mill is a collaboration between Michael Francis Gibson, who wrote the book on which it is based, and Lech Majewski, Polish video artist, filmmaker, and unorthodox art historian.
Majewski's previous works include the magic-realist screenplay to Basquiat, wonderfully realized by artist/director Julian Schnabel, and his own The Garden of Earthly Delights, about a dying art historian who uses the Hieronymus Bosch painting as - dare I say it? - a sexual aid.
Mill opens on a tableau of figures before a photographic backdrop of Bruegel's sloping and craggy landscape. Towering above is a mill perched atop what resembles an escarpment of melted candle wax. Inside this fantastic structure, the miller and his wife wake up to breakfast. Then the film jumps from Bruegel's mind's eye to the artist himself.
The miller, Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) explains to his patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York), represents God "grinding out the bread and life of destiny."
While sketching out this composition full of incident - a vast ground populated with carnivalesque revelers, Jesus and Mary among them - Bruegel tells his patron what his representations mean.
This isn't Jesus in the Holy Land, but Jesus in Bruegel's own Flanders, a Protestant nation occupied by Catholic Spain, which persecuted religious heretics. Thus, scarlet-coated Spanish soldiers lead Jesus to Golgotha. Those in the shadow of the mill hardly notice the man carrying the cross that rhymes with the structure of the windmill blades.
The movie rewards the patient viewer by putting her into the artist's shoes. But rather than bring to life Bruegel's "The Way to Calvary," Majewski's deliberate pace sucks the air out of it.