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Written by: Lech Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson based on his novel of the same name

Directed by: Lech Majewski

Starring: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling

It feels difficult, or at least inadequate, to discuss The Mill and the Crossa film by Lech Majewski which explores, in some detail, the lives of some of the figures seen in Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary.  Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer, is patiently composing his massive painting as he observes and sketches the daily behaviour of those around him. Bruegel is tethering the religious persecution of his contemporaries to the crucifiction of Christ who, fallen, hides within the crowd. The Mill and The Cross is a meditation on the cruelty of man and it is remarkable.

The film opens on a shot of a massive recreation of Bruegel’s painting which Majewski has filled with real people and animals, some who stand perfectly still and some who shift and move around. Through the use of green screen, digital effects and a particularly painterly colour palette, Marjewski recreates in every frame of his film the atmosphere of Bruegel’s paintings. A technique of digital collage reminds me of the work of Marco Brambilla while scenes detailing the peasants, both in crowds and on their own, reminds me of the way Werner Herzog observes human behaviour with muted endearment. Majewski presents scenes of cruelty ranging from sibling rows to religious crucifiction (including, but not limited to, that of Christ), all of which feel commonplace in this template of 16th Century Flemish countryside. During all of this, crowds tend to gather but only to observe with tired stoicism. An intense and stern performance from Hauer lends weight to the deliberation of art and tragedy, while serious-but-stilted performances from Michael York and Charlotte Rampling link the film’s artificial aesthetic to Hauer’s realistic presence.

As a painting requires careful, thoughtful consideration so too does The Mill and The Cross. There is very little dialogue, but what there is is spent almost entirely on clarifying the images from Bruegel’s (though, I guess really Majewski’s) perspective. The rest of the film is a series of quiet and carefully composed images. This is a film about cruelty and harassment, yet in its movements it does not feel despairing. Two final shots addle the tone of the rest of the film and leave one feeling likely not hopeful, but at the very least peaceful.

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