Set both inside and outside the picture frame, “The Mill & the Cross” examines a semifamous painting by a Flemish master — Pieter Bruegel’s “The Way to Cavalry” — by dramatizing the creation of the 16th-century work and bringing to life a few figures pictured therein.
Directed and co-written by Lech Majewski (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”), the film is a portrait of a painting, not an artist, and its lack of character-centered storytelling hurts its narrative grip. But as a visual canvas created in the spirit of Bruegel’s allegorical panorama, and as a celebration of art, it is magnificent.
For those unfamiliar, Bruegel, known for his satirical brush and focus on common folk, has transported the crucifixion of Christ to 1564 Spain-occupied Flanders, and has replaced Roman brutality with that of the Spanish regime, in the above-cited work of protest art.
The pastoral landscape contains hundreds of figures and a windmill under dramatic skies where crows, shades of the future van Gogh, suggest doom.
Like “The Girl With a Pearl Earring,” this Polish-Swedish production imagines real-life events behind the creation of a painting, but there’s no melodrama here.
Majewski and co-writer Michael Francis Gibson, adapting Gibson’s book, offer numerous vignettes featuring about a dozen figures from Bruegel’s picture, presenting these characters anonymously and without dialogue. Woodmen chop trees. A woman kneads dough. Children play. A couple take a calf to market.
Mundane proceedings occasionally give way to something haunting, as when a young man meets with a hellish fate after encountering militiamen.
Speaking roles, in English, are limited to three. A patron (Michael York) decries the Spanish occupation and its red-coated “foreign mercenaries” riding through the streets and killing those deemed heretics. Bruegel’s model for Mary (Charlotte Rampling) thinks aloud about the judgment imposed on her own son.
Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer) sketches his environs and explains his artwork’s symbolism. The miller, who regards the history-making events unfolding before him with impassivity, is a stand-in for God, the artist says, and in the windmill, he is “grinding the bread and life of destiny.”
As a narrative, the film sags. Majewski doesn’t bring all of the characters to life and the dialogue has a clunky, expository feel.
But he compensates by delivering a rich stew of themes, ideas and visual technique, the latter involving a layering of blue-screen technology, landscape footage, CGI and painted backdrops. The result is an impressively ambitious, exquisite-looking movie that, at its high points, blends history, fantasy and majesty and is a striking ode to art.
With originality and grand aspiration so rare in cinema, this is a film that, however imperfect, merits experiencing.
Starring Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling
Written by Michael Francis Gibson, Lech Majewski
Directed by Lech Majewski
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes