Friday, 9 March 2012

The Mill and the Cross

 The Mill and the Cross is a 2011 drama film directed by Lech Majewski and starring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York. It is inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary, and based on Michael Francis Gibson's book The Mill and the Cross. The film was a Polish-Swedish co-production. Filming on the project wrapped in August 2009. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 23, 2011.
The film focuses on a dozen of the 500 characters depicted in Bruegel's painting. The theme of Christ's suffering is set against religious persecution in Flanders in 1564.
Joe Bendel: "... one of the standouts at this year’s Sundance".  Variety's Dennis Harvey wrote: "While hardly an exercise in strict realism a la The Girl With the Pearl Earring, the pic details rustic Flanders life with loving care, from costuming to simple machinery. Pic's narrative content ... is hardly straightforward or propulsive. ... the film is never dull, and frequently entrancing." Harvey thought that if marketed cleverly, the film "could prove the Polish helmer's belated international breakthrough". Neil Young of The Hollywood Reporter complimented the technical achievements, but called the film "ambitious but frustratingly flat". He described the English dialogue as "mostly clunky" and thought the film "has too much of a stodgy Euro-pudding feel".On the other hand, in his review for the San Francisco International Film Festival, Graham Leggat writes: "...the narrative is not the point—the extraordinary imagery is. The painting literally comes to life in this spellbinding film, its wondrous scenes entering the viewer like a dream enters a sleeping body."

Rutger Hauer as Pieter Bruegel
Michael York as Nicolaes Jonghelinck
Charlotte Rampling as Mary
Joanna Litwin as Marijken Bruegel (Pieter's wife)
Marian Makula as miller

 The Mill and the Cross

Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross” lets viewers into Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 masterpiece, “The Procession of Calvary.”
An Angelus Silesius and Polish Film Institute production in association with Telewizja Polska, Bokomotiv Filmproduktion, Odeon Studio, Silesia Film, 24 Media, Supra Film, Arkana Studio and Piramida Film. (International sales: Wide Management, Produced by Lech Majewski. Executive producer, Angelus Silesius. Directed by Lech Majewski. Screenplay, Michael Francis Gibson, Majewski, inspired by the book by Gibson.

An extraordinary imaginative leap, Lech Majewski's "The Mill and the Cross" combines old and new technologies allowing the viewer to live inside the painting -- Flemish master Pieter Bruegel's 1564 "The Procession to Calvary," an epic canvas depicting both Christ's crucifixion and the artist's homeland brutalization by Spanish occupiers. Neither conventional costume drama nor abstract objet d'art, this visually ravishing, surprisingly beguiling gamble won't fit any standard arthouse niche. Still it could prove the Polish helmer's belated international breakthrough, especially if marketed as a unique, immersive museum-meets-cinema experience a la Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark."
Opening setpiece stages the complex painting via a combination of live actors (and horses), bluescreen effects and 2D backdrops. Its crowded landscape features some 500 historical, religious, contemporary and symbolic figures, with biblical travails depicted alongside sufferings of Flemish citizens persecuted by representatives of the Spanish inquisition. We continually revisit this tableau, in whole and part, while other scenes are frequently modeled on several other paintings by Bruegel the Elder.
Representing God atop an enormous windmill tower is a miller (Marian Makula) impassively regarding various scenes from his lofty perch. They include the seizure by red-coated militia of one peasant (Mateusz Machnik) who is tortured and killed for presumed heresy. Later, another hapless soul is literally crucified for some other crime.
Periodically commenting sorrowfully on this state of affairs -- either alone or in conversation with the artist -- is a wealthy burgher (Michael York) appalled by the invaders' misrule, even if he himself seems immune from harm. A mother (Charlotte Rampling) whose son has been dragged off to slaughter delivers in voiceover lamentations that are more personal and poetic; she is also the painting's Virgin Mary model. Meanwhile, Breughel himself (Rutger Hauer) bemusedly explains the hidden meanings scattered throughout his masterwork, often in the form of conflated religious allegory and political protest.
Not everything is grim here, however. Indeed much of "The Mill and the Cross" delights, with episodes of rambunctious humor among some rural ne'er-do-wells and a roving pack of joyfully rowdy children. Life does go on, despite the climate of fear and cruelty.
While hardly an exercise in strict realism a la "The Girl With the Pearl Earring," the pic details rustic Flanders life with loving care, from costuming to simple machinery. Pic's narrative content (inspired by co-scenarist Michael Francis Gibson's nonfiction tome of the same name, which playfully analyzes both painting and its creation) is hardly straightforward or propulsive. Yet the film is never dull, and frequently entrancing.
Lensing wrapped nearly a year and a half ago, followed by lengthy post-production labor resulting in the remarkable mesh of visual elements that recreate Breughel's art and times. While not intended to be seamless, design contributions are superlative. Sparingly used music hews mostly to instruments of the era. The three international marquee thesps speak in English; all incidental speech, in Spanish and Flemish, goes untranslated.

The Mill & the Cross: Berlin Review
 2/9/2011 by Neil Young in The Hollywood Reporter

The Bottom Line
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 directorMajewski.)
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'


September 13, 2011
Creating a Cinematic Picture of a Flemish Masterpiece

By DANIEL M. GOLD in The New York Times
Even before the opening credits run, “The Mill & the Cross” casts a transfixing spell, as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the great 16th-century Flemish artist, chats with his patron Nicholas Jonghelinck while he sketches studies for a large work he is preparing. Then the camera pulls back, blending scores of actors and animals with computer-generated effects, painted backdrops and location shots to restage Bruegel’s 1564 masterpiece, “The Way to Calvary.”

Directed by the Polish filmmaker and video artist Lech Majewski, “The Mill & the Cross” has ambitions as sweeping as the vast canvas that Bruegel fills. In this lush and hypnotic examination of a painter’s work and the times in which he lived, Mr. Majewski presents an extended contemplation of the creative process itself.

As social commentary, Bruegel’s depictions of life in Flanders were meticulously detailed. As a sly subversive, he had a gift for telling a hidden story to those who knew how to look for it.

In “Calvary” he shifted the Crucifixion to his own age; it isn’t Roman soldiers marching Jesus to Golgotha, it is red-jacketed Spanish militiamen, then occupying the Low Countries and waging a brutal repression of the Protestant Reformation. But it’s not easy to find Jesus staggering beneath the crucifix he carries in the teeming crowds in the landscape; surrounding the procession are hundreds of local characters, most unaware of the world-shaking event about to occur.

Adapted from a book by the art critic Michael Francis Gibson, who wrote the screenplay with Mr. Majewski, the film does not offer much plot. In its stead, it portrays — for the most part wordlessly — the daily lives and often harshly casual deaths in and around 16th-century Antwerp, episodes that often wind up in Bruegel’s panorama.

Peddlers sell their wares; musicians play crude instruments; woodsmen chop down trees. A young couple take their calf to market, only for the man to be set upon by soldiers, then strapped to a wheel and raised to the top of a stake, where crows gather to pick out his eyes. Observing it all dispassionately is the miller, whose windmill and granary are atop a natural stone tower, a stand-in for God “grinding out the bread of life and destiny,” as Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) says to Jonghelinck (Michael York).

Mr. Majewski does not spend much time developing his characters; Mr. Hauer and Mr. York, along with Charlotte Rampling as Bruegel’s Virgin Mary, are archetypes, and the only dialogue of note is when Bruegel spells out his symbolism, or when Jonghelinck, a wealthy burgher, bemoans the “foreign mercenaries” patrolling the streets.

It isn’t the artist, it’s the art that’s the star here, and Mr. Majewski lavishes sophisticated, enchanting detail on its re-creation. He’s painting cinematically, shooting in Europe and New Zealand for the right locations and applying several layers of technology: blue screen, backdrops, digital footage.

At the film’s end we see the painting, some of its mysteries revealed, hanging next to Bruegel’s equally masterly “Tower of Babel” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; we are also left to savor an inspiring, alluring meditation about imagery and storytelling, the common coin of history, religion and art.

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