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 Way to Calvary”, and based on Michael Francis Gibson’s book The Mill and the Cross. The film was a Polish-Swedish co-production. Combining a love of art with cutting-edge digital technology, filmmaker Lech Majewski has brought a Renaissance masterpiece to life — in vivid style — on the big screen.
The film tells the story of a dozen characters represented in Dutch master Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 canvas, “Christ Carrying the Cross.” The painting, which hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, depicts Christ’s last journey bearing his cross to Golgotha, where he was crucified. Pieter Brueghel packed his 16th-century Passion painting, The Way to Calvary, with hundreds of figures based on his own contemporaries, conflating the persecution of Christ with the Spanish occupation that raged outside his studio.
“The Mill & the Cross” has ambitions as sweeping as the vast canvas that Bruegel fills. 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.” 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. 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. With sparse dialogue and occasional voiceover, the film tells its story visually, taking viewers inside the peasant huts, along the cobbled town streets past stone buildings where the Spanish troops might be roaming. Majewski also gives life to sounds, be they nature’s or man’s doing.One gruesome scene early in the film has the Spaniards attaching a villager to a wheel that is mounted on a pole and allowing birds to feast on the poor soul’s face. Christ’s demise is less savage and his subsequent resurrection is subtly conveyed. 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.