Review: ‘The Mill and the Cross’ is Artifice for Art’s Sake

By  · Published on September 15th, 2011

Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski’s new English language film The Mill and the Cross is a fascinating exercise in form and artistic experimentation. The film itself is a project brought forth by a dialogue between various art forms. It’s based on Michael Francis Gibson’s book of the same name and focuses on the lives of the many characters depicted in Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous work The Way to Calvary (1564), a painting that features literally hundreds of individuals and a crucifixion allegory to boot.

It seems almost natural that such a film would arise from the meeting of artistic minds across centuries, using a relatively new art form to give temporality and space to another. And Majewski’s film, like any considerable work of visual art, has striking visuals and composition, not so much enlivening the everyday tasks of the characters in this painting with “realism” but depicting it through the opportunities of artistic representation. Thus, The Mill and the Cross is a fully aware and intentionally engaged with artifice and its process. Why then, is its very artificiality so off-putting?

From the two carefully orchestrated shots that open the film, The Mill and the Cross establishes its balance between representing the artistic process and bringing the work-in-progress itself to life. Bruegel (an appropriately rough and poetic Rutger Hauer, here more Roy Batty than shotgun-wielding hobo) stands amongst the work itself while the commissioner of the work (Michael York) observes. Human actors stand as part of a flesh and material landscape that slowly drifts off into a digital background. This opening move, which is further explored and developed throughout the film, provides a perfect visual metaphor for collapsing perceived divisions between art and life. Neither imitates the other; they are eternally co-dependent.

But once again, this is a film fascinated by artifice, its means of representation, and its process – not with making the represented “real.” There is something of a day-in-the-life element to the representation of the paintings’ many actors, as we get glimpses of morning routines and the hardships of 16th century life, but this isn’t the film’s chief concern. The film is also ripe with images that are visually striking, especially in its ruminations on violence and its relationship with Christian heritage. In terms of storytelling, the film is lyrically composed, traversing through episodes of the actors within the painting that rarely make any distinction from the lives of the individuals who took part in making it. York provides a voice-over or two that don’t elucidate narrative, but rather convey tone through the poetics of language. This is a film about the spiritual and emotional impression of art, and its potential to convey and represent. It’s not a film concerned with the stories of the actors in this painting, nor one even all that concerned (narrative-wise) with the artistic process itself.

This is art cinema in multiple senses of the term. And the most stunning thing about the film’s opening shot is its subtle confusion of the real and the representational: human figures blend into a digital landscape. Most of the film’s other efforts in this regard don’t come across so elegantly. There’s something to be said about historical arthouse filmmaking using digital techniques, whether it’s in the cinematography or the elements onscreen. I’ve simply never seen a case where it’s worked in a way in which the digital has enriched the imagery in a way film couldn’t. Here is no different.

Rather than integrate Hauer and York into the landscape of the painting, the film seems to undermine its own efforts through a digital matting process that literally places them on a plane of obvious flatness with respect to their surroundings. Why, then, would a film about the art of painting not want to use one of the many opportunities for historical cinematic equivalents: a painted backdrop, or old-school matting that worked quite well for a certain 1980s science-fiction film starring Hauer? My complaint is lodged here not because I was “taken out of the film” when it comes to a film about artifice itself, but moments that unconvincingly juxtapose humans with a digital background stand in stark contrast here to The Mill and the Cross’s many other visually striking and lyrical elements. For a movie about art, there’s simply too much artlessness interfering.

The Good Side: A fascinating experience that achieves moments of striking beauty and speaks a great deal to the arbitrary distinctions between art and life…

The Bad Side: …that is undermined by poor digital filmmaking techniques.

On the Side: In the 90s, Majewski was originally signed up to direct the Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic Basquiat before Julian Schnabel took over.