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Mill and Cross

The Mill and the Cross (2011)

Director: Lech Majewski
Reviewed by Andrea Swanson

Polish director Lech Majewski paints for us a portrait of Northern European life in the 1500s – complete with religious persecution, political oppression and family life – in his film The Mill and the Cross. The film is based on art historian Michael Francis Gibson's book of the same name and highlights “The Way to Calvary,” a work by 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The opening scene is just that – a scene where an invisible curtain seems drawn and characters depicted in the painting become animated with stunning visual affect. Here grain is being ground, bakers are selling their bread, families are waking up to their day, thieves are being punished and the Messiah is being led to execution.

Rutger Hauer, known for his roles in Blade Runner (1982) and Sin City (2005), plays Bruegel, who explains his art to patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York). Jonghelinck is Bruegel's artistically naïve sidekick, presented in the form of a well-garbed merchant, whose function is to elicit explanations from Bruegel about his work and to supply the audience with historic background to one of Europe's most tumultuous periods.

The film's narrative seems plodding at times, an effect accentuated by meager dialogue. Without Jonghelinck's social commentary and political tisk-tisking, many Canadian viewers would certainly have remained in the dark to much of the film's goings-on. A strong feature in The Mill and the Cross is the rampant symbolism and imagery that is painted into every scene. Majewski ingeniously incorporates the concept of anchor point into his tale. Bruegel reveals that in his painting, this centre of the narrative web is Christ and the cross, though with such focus much of the work's life is missed. In the film itself, we struggle for coherent and traditional storytelling – rising action, climax and resolution – only to overlook the heart of the matter: the inner wheels of Bruegel's creative mind.