Oh, boy. Where to begin? The Mill and the Cross is not for everyone. Actually, it's not for most people. So the question becomes: Who is it for? If you're a fan of Peter Greenaway, and I don't mean his better-known work like The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, then you might be the right audience for Lech Majewski's cinematic ode and exploration of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's 1564 panoramic "The Way to Calvary." In many ways, it embodies the purest definition of art film, marrying aesthetics, context and content into a hypnotic contemplation of the creative process.
For the non-art majors in the crowd, the painting is a gorgeous and complicated tableau that features more than 500 Flemish subjects, many of whom bear witness to Christ's execution by the occupying Spanish army. A work of social, political and religious criticism, Majewski translates Bruegel's dark pastoral scene into filmic art, seeking to depict the living, breathing stories behind the subjects in the painting.
Replicating what's on the canvas and even immersing his characters in CG-created painted landscapes, for 90 long minutes we are never sure where the real world ends and Bruegel's (played by Rutger Hauer) imagined, painted world begins. We follow the artist as he contemplates, philosophizes and plots how he will execute his masterwork, learning how a spider's web inspired its design, then watching him step directly into his depiction of Christ's struggle.
Meanwhile, the players imprinted on his canvas come to life, so that we might witness their daily dramas. A couple operates an immense windmill (where we watch a peasant climb each and every step), a bedroom full of children giddily horse around, a young man is whipped to death by forces of the Inquisition, a woman is buried alive, the nobleman (Michael York) who requisitioned Bruegel's painting worries about the changing world, all while the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling) bears witness. Each vignette provides a thumbnail sketch of 16th century Flanders (historically and spiritually), and yet the stories seem to deepen rather than explain the mysteries of the painting.
Visually, it's a lavish dreamscape, constructed from footage shot in Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and New Zealand. Majewski is a master at capturing exquisitely saturated images. But as storytelling, The Mill and the Cross provides little more than stilted dialogue to hold onto. If you are open-minded and willing to confront cinema as experience rather than entertainment or catharsis, then Majewski's lush meditation on love, religious repression and the creative process will yield singular rewards. But come prepared. If you're not into watching Bruegel's mother stare in slack-jawed horror for two full minutes, then this immersive and mostly nonverbal art tour of history could lead to an evening of regret. —Jeff Meyers
At the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Jan. 20-21; 2 p.m. Sunday Jan. 22, 9:30 Jan. 27-28, and 4:30 p.m. Jan. 29. Call 313-833-3237.
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