When I was young, the backgrounds in Bible-themed paintings by Renaissance masters always puzzled me. I’d seen photos of the landscape around Jerusalem — rocks and sand and brutal sun, nothing like the undulating hills and rivers and olive trees on the canvases of Leonardo. Then, one foggy day near Florence, Italy, I climbed a slope and looked around at the countryside at my feet (hills, rivers, olive trees) and thought, oh, of course.
That may seem like a digressive way to start a movie review. But I remembered that moment often while watching “The Mill and the Cross” — really less a standard movie than an immersive experience. It’s both a meditation on fate and an art-appreciation lesson. And it’s mutedly thrilling, hypnotically strange.
Polish co-writer and director Lech Majewski takes us, quite literally, into 16th-century artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “The Road to Calvary” (below). Like his “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” this teeming canvas is a masterpiece of visual misdirection. In a (very Flemish) landscape, at the base of a windmill, Jesus is stumbling along, dragging his cross. You’d be excused if you don’t see him right away (any more than the splashing legs of Icarus, vanishing into the bay in that other painting). He’s way in the background, behind the capering fools, the peasants bickering, and his mother, Mary, grieving his death in advance. All those soldiers in red coats are Spanish militia, persecuting “heretics” — in this case, Jesus himself. So, yes, the man from Nazareth, in Bruegel’s painting, finds himself being crucified all over again by disciples 1,500 years after his first execution.
Putting it that way might be lending “The Mill and the Cross” more of a message than it intends. That’s the thing about Majewski’s movie, though. It’s a broad canvas (so to speak) on which to paint your own thoughts as you watch it unfold. The closest approximation to a plot is appearances of Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer), planning his painting and discussing it with his wealthy patron (Michael York).
Most of the movie is wordless, observing the daily routines of the people who will compose the crowd: farmers, monks, children and the aged Mary herself (Charlotte Rampling, a long way from “The Night Porter”), who questions, in internal monologue, the destiny of her son. (They’re filmed in a dimly lustrous light that comes closer to Vermeer than to Bruegel.) And, of course, there’s the miller and his wife, overseeing it all from their bizarre, rocky promontory. The film is always visually fascinating, blending real locations (in Poland) and digital versions of Bruegel’s painting.
The movie carries that painting forward in time, dramatizing the torture and death of Jesus, though thankfully not to the obsessive, pornographic extremes of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” (That doesn’t make this a religious film, but more an exploration of the vagaries of fate as seen through that Bible story.) What does it mean? It means that art can be a blessed distillation, an attempt both to evoke the eternal and to celebrate the mortal. Messy and divine. That holy, unholy welter of impulses that we call mankind.
“The Mill and the Cross.” With Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling. Directed by Lech Majewski. 92 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.