Falling into a Bruegel painting, on film

"The Mill and the Cross," directed by Lech Majewski. Kino Lorber, Inc.Kino Lorber, Inc.

By Bob Hicks

If you’re going to fall into a painting, choose carefully. Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie might be exciting, but after a while you’d start to feel like a mouse in a maze. Edvard Munch’s The Scream? You don’t want to go there. One of Henri Rousseau’s Edenic wild beasty scenes would be tempting, but how are your jungle survival skills? A Jackson Pollock action painting? It’d be an adventure, but a weirdly disorienting one. And do you really want to spend eternity slipping around Salvador Dali’s melted clocks in The Persistence of Memory?

No, better off to choose a painting with a broadly varied universe of its own, a place that gives you lots of room to roam. Pieter Bruegel the Elder‘s 1564 masterpiece The Way to Calvary, for instance, a painting of meticulous and painstaking vision that exists in a complex network of space, thought and time. Calvary forms the basis for Polish director Lech Majewski’s audacious film The Mill & the Cross, a visually breathtaking piece of moviemaking that opens Friday at Northwest Portland’s Cinema 21 and plays through November 10.

Majewski’s movie falls into Bruegel’s painting because Michael Francis Gibson fell in first. Gibson, a historian and art critic, had become fascinated with the painting and had created a long piece of scholarship on it, considering it from artistic, historical, religious and political angles. Like so many of Bruegel’s works, the painting is almost dizzyingly complex, a vision of contemporary culture from the ground up — from the grinders of the grain and the tillers of the soil. Gibson, who discusses the film project in this fascinating interview from the East European Film Bulletin, at first wanted Majewski to make a documentary film about the painting. Majewski wanted to turn it into a work of fiction, and Gibson trusted him, agreeing to write the script.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Procession to Calvary. 1564. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

You can call The Mill & the Cross a movie fiction only in a loose sense. Yes, it has a created story, and a narrative of sorts. It chooses a handful of characters from the dozens Bruegel painted, and it builds its story in a slow succession of images, alternately moving in for particulars and pulling back for a widescreen perspective. It’s slow, or rather, deliberate, and for some moviegoers that’s a serious stumbling block. My friend Shawn Levy, a very perceptive movie critic, downgrades it largely on that ground: visually ravishing, narratively unsatisfying. But there are stories and there are stories, and this one, like the painting itself, relies less on narrative thrust than on gradual realizations drawn from a tapestry of misdirection and incident. It captivated me. I found myself thinking of a line from Daniel Martin, by John Fowles, a novelist known for his deep appreciation of the visual arts: “And his heart turns, some strange premonitory turn, a day when in an empty field he shall weep for this.”

It’s easy to forget as you’re caught up in the dazzling particulars of The Mill & the Cross that there is something here to weep about. It is, for all the carnival-like action surrounding it, the story of a crucifixion. As the painter Bruegel, in the profound face and carriage of actor Rutger Hauer, points out in the film, the cross is at the center of the painting yet is almost lost amid the flurry. It’s like any execution of its (meaning Bruegel’s) time: an entertainment for the masses. And to the casual visitor it almost disappears in the hubbub.

Charlotte Rampling in "The Mill_& the Cross." Kino Lorber, Inc.

The Mill & the Cross has a cast of hundreds but concentrates on three: Bruegel himself, played by Hauer, who lays out a clear-eyed interpretation of the events and power structures of his Flanders; the artist’s patron, a banker, played by Michael York; and a sadly dignified woman who represents the Virgin Mary, played by Charlotte Rampling. (A fourth significant but rarely seen character, the miller, hovers above, barely in view, overlooking the scene from atop his impractically high mill. Rumpled and a bit henpecked yet all-seeing, he represents God, observing from on high but not involving himself in the mess below. The towering mill is perhaps an echo of the spires in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch genius whose work was an inspiration and model for Bruegel’s.) As befits a movie about a painting, the three stars are cast largely for the way they look. The camera studies them the way the painter studies his oils and panel, concentrating on the nonverbal aspects of their beings: They become animated foreground, suggesting character by their physical presence.

Michael York in "The Mill & the Cross." Kino Lorber, Inc.One of the movie’s great successes is the way it suggests overlapping periods of time. It’s a passion play, a retelling of the gospels. It reflects our own time and the ways in which we regard the mythologies of the past. It is very much current in the time of Bruegel’s northern Renaissance, and it underlines, as does the painting itself, how little removed in some ways that comparatively enlightened period was from the rough brutalities of medieval Europe (not that here in the 21st century we don’t know our own rough brutalities).

Majewski shows us shocking scenes of casual cruelties and the exercise of raw power: Daringly, Bruegel’s soldiers aren’t Roman, as the passion scene would suggest, but Spanish — the enforcers who had occupied Flanders with a particularly excessive brand of cruelty that was also creating a bloody and despairing history in the Americas. And it’s intriguing that York, the decent man (a banker! — imagine that), the good burgher, is in a way the hope for the future, the man capable both of understanding the greatness of Bruegel’s vision and of rejecting the indecency of superstition and the politics of cruelty. He may seem dimmer and less decisive than the artist. But he’s the engine of civilization, and change will come through him.

Bruegel is great because he understood so fully the intimations of the life and times around him. He is memorable because he translated that understanding into ravishing images. He was, foremost, an artist, a creator of beauty. This is what The Mill & the Cross understands: It uses a sophisticated form of animation that allows for an astonishing visual blending of real actors with Bruegel’s painting itself. Like Victorian stage backdrops but with infinitely better integration, the live action rises from the flat planes of the painting. It creates a luscious, astonishing visual and perhaps even philosophical hyperreality. And that’s worth falling into, at least for a couple of hours.

Rutger Hauer as the artist Pieter Bruegel in "The Mill & the Cross." Kino Lorber, Inc.


  • “The Mill & the Cross,” directed by Lech Majewski. Kino Lorber, Inc.
  • Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Procession to Calvary,” 1564. Oil on panel. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.
  • Charlotte Rampling in “The Mill & the Cross.” Kino Lorber, Inc.
  • Michael York in “The Mill & the Cross.” Kino Lorber, Inc.
  • Rutger Hauer as the artist Pieter Bruegel in “The Mill & the Cross.” Kino Lorber, Inc.