The Mill and the Cross
Directed by Lech Majewski
Watching Lech Majewski's cinematic reimagining of Bruegel the Elder's The Way to Calvary, a 1564 depiction of the crucifixion in contemporary Flanders, feels like having an exhaustive 90-minute tour of a single painting guided by an attentive and imaginative docent. These volunteer tour guides are indispensable, generous, well informed, and often insufferable. They humbly share ownership of a painting with the artist himself. As does Majewski, an experienced translator of painting into motion pictures after co-writing Basquiat.
Rather than dramatize the dense action of the painting, Majewski takes a magnifying glass to every detail of its well-costumed crowd (played by actors), with remarkable attention to social history, landscape, and to the colors and drapery of the Flemish peasants' and Spanish invaders' clothes. The interiors, with stripes of sunlight falling across dark wood and cobbled floors, are gorgeous, and the outdoor scenes are admirable efforts of gruesome pageantry. Most industriously, he uses digital tools to explore Bruegel's perspective techniques, looking at every angle from every angle as if deep within a video game. Majewski has said, "I want the viewer to live inside the painting." Like Lara Croft would.
The last shot of the actual painting hanging in a museum reminds that what makes it a masterpiece is the elongated ovals of the figures as much as the details of their backstories. The film is a technical spectacle worth seeing, but the only breathtaking or mysterious moments, which feel like a movie rather than an illustrated lecture, come in the few scenes featuring Charlotte Rampling as a 16th-century version of the Virgin Mary. It's the rounds and hollows of her exquisite, unknowable face that come closest to the power of Bruegel.
Opens September 14 at Film Forum