The Mill & the Cross: Berlin Review

Bokomotiv Filmproduktion AB
This attempt to explore and dramatize a masterpiece of 16th-century art falls flat.

Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling fail to inspire passion in this tale of 16th-century art.

ROTTERDAM -- If ever a film cried out for the 3D treatment, it's The Mill & the Cross, an ambitious but frustratingly flat attempt to explore, analyze and dramatize a masterpiece of 16th-century art. The presence of stars Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling will pique some interest, and the highbrow concept -- plus some striking high-definition digital visuals -- will ensure festival exposure. But this Polish/Swedish co-production, set in what's now Belgium and with nearly all of the (often clunky) dialogue spoken in English, has too much of a stodgy Euro-pudding feel to make much dent commercially. DVD sales, ideally packaged with book that inspired it, may prove more lucrative, particular in museum stores.

Completed in 1564, The Way to Calvary - or Christ Carrying the Cross - - is recognized as a key achievement by Pieter Bruegel (Hauer), transplanting the crucifixion's prelude to the artist's own place and time. As with his better-known Fall of Icarus, he depicts a "world-changing event" as an everyday occurrence, which goes quite unnoticed by the crowd.

Flanders was then ruled by Spain, and as shown here the occupation was brutal, with casual barbarities the order of the day. In the most harrowing scene, a young farmer is cruelly whipped before being strapped to a wheel, which is then mounted on a pole and hoisted into the sky for passing crows to viciously feast on his eyeballs.

Christ's chastisement is therefore performed not by Roman soldiers but Spanish Catholic ones, a savagely satirical conceit of Bruegel's which functions smoothly enough on canvas, but which becomes more awkward when dramatized and expanded to include episodes taking place around the painting's specific moment. Judas, for example, is here a Spanish militiaman who, after betraying Jesus, is shown visiting a church where a crucified Christ is visible on the altar. Such perturbing touches ensure the intended interplay between theological, historical and artistic elements never quite comes into focus and the limitations of feature length preclude the depths of interpretation explored in Michael Francis Gibson's 2003 tome (inspiration for the screenplay by Gibson and director Majewski.)

But even if the film is questionable as an analysis of Bruegel's work -- the painter himself is too often required to baldly spell out his own symbolism -- Majewski does craft some imaginative computer-aided tableaux vivants in which painted and real worlds overlap, most impressively via the fancifully elaborate windmill around whose gargantuan innards his camera atmospherically glides.

These flights of imagination are, however, exasperatingly grounded by some questionable choices on Majewski's part such as always coyly obscuring the face of his 'Christ' (clearly visible in the Bruegel) via careful camera-placement. Then there's the baffling decision to have Bruegel's fellow villagers (whose costumes are largely spotless, despite their muddy surroundings) rendered semi-mute -- there's singing and laughing, but no actual dialogue -- presumably to avoid subtitles. This often produces moments of elaborate contrivance, as when Bruegel's wife (silently) controls her noisy children.

Bruegel and his Antwerp-aristocrat patron (York) do get to converse -- in English, Hauer's Californianized tones striking unfortunate notes of incongruity. And having York deliver so much context-setting verbiage early on in The Mill & the Cross, though welcome for viewers unfamiliar with 16th century geopolitics, does stir unhelpful memories of the actor's spoofy Austin Powers role as 'Basil Exposition'.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival
Angelus Silesius, Bokomotiv Filmproduktion AB
Cast: Rutger Hauer, Michael York, Charlotte Rampling, Marian Makula. Joanna Litwin
Director: Lech Majewski
Screenwriters: Michael Francis Gibson, Lech Majewski
Inspired by the book by: Francis Gibson
Producers: Lech Majewski, Freddy Olsson
Executive producer: Angelus Silesius
Directors of photography: Lech Majewski, Adam Sikora
Production designers: Katarzyna Sobańska, Marcel Sławinski
Music: Lech Majewski, Jozef Skrzek
Costume designer: Dorota Roqueplo
Editors: Eliot Ems, Norbert Rudzik
No rating, 92 minutes