Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: The Mill and the Cross

Then began I to dream a marvellous dream,
That I was in a wilderness wist I not where.
As I looked to the east right into the sun,
I saw a tower on a toft worthily built;
A deep dale beneath a dungeon therein,
With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight
A fair field full of folk found I in between,
Of all manner of men the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering as the world asketh
--Piers Plowman by William Langland
This is a difficult film to review.  It is strange and beautiful and unique, but also a little remote and perhaps too subtle for its own good.  It felt, to me, like it could have been a masterpiece and wasn't, but I am not sure that I wouldn't feel different after a second viewing.  I have often found second viewings of films that I find challenging but remote to be far more emotionally involving and satisfying than the first viewing. 

Written by Michael Francis Gibson and co-written and directed by Lech Majewski, The Mill and the Cross is the story of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his masterpiece, The Way to Calvary.  It is important to get a couple facts straight about this going in, or you will find yourself completely lost.  Bruegel painted in what is now the Netherlands (and was then Flanders) in the 16th century.  At the time of this painting, the Protestant Reformation was still in full swing, and the Low Countries had a reputation for being open. But Philip II, ruler of Spain, the Netherlands, and much more, came to power, and, as defender of the Catholic Church, began harshly cracking down on any reformist preachers and sympathizers.  This inquisition is what the painting is really about, placing the Crucifixion amidst the people and politics of the times, and depicting the soldiers dragging Christ to be crucified as Spanish.  It is unclear whether Bruegel himself was Protestant or Catholic, but he certainly seems to have opposed the Spanish police measures.
The film is not, however, about the making of the painting.  It shows Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) sketching scenes, but it never shows him actually painting.  The process is not what interests the film.  Nor is it a detailed historical portrait of the times and issues involved.  Instead, the film seems to take place inside the painting, telling the stories of ever person pictured over the course of the day the painting depicts.  There are only three speaking parts:  Bruegel, his patron Nicolaes Jonghelnik (Michael York), and Mary the Mother of Christ (Charlotte Rampling).  They first two periodically give speeches about the painting and the political context, while Mary contemplates the approaching death of her son.  While Hauer endows his lines with a certain gravity and wisdom, the other lines mostly come off as stilted and awkward, interesting in the abstract but not dramatically compelling.  Fortunately, the dialogue is very limited.  Outside of the few speaking interludes, it’s practically a silent film.

The film has been rendered in a complex process of live action, green-screening, and CGI backgrounds layered over each other dozens of times to create the texture of the original painting.  Colors pop off the screen, and foreground and background   shift in strange, surreal ways.  It is often astonishingly beautiful, and it looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen.  However, one gets used to the look of thing fairly quickly, and if it had nothing else worth recommending it would be little more than a curiosity.  What matters is how the film juxtaposes art and life, and what this juxtaposition ultimately reveals.  To borrow a term from another internet commenter, there is a diegetic blurriness to the film, meaning it shows both the creation of the painting and the what the canvas depicts at the same time, mirroring and reproducing the way the painting imagines both the death of Christ and the Counter-Reformation crackdown intersecting in the same artistic space.

Over the course of a single day, we see life roll by, as various people arise in the morning, take their wares to market, interact with each other, watch the executions,  and eventually go home.  At the end they join hands in a dance of death that recalls Bergman’s Seventh Seal, though the image is taken from the upper right corner of the painting.  The vertiginous foreshortening of the frame, with an infinite background suddenly made as close as any of the characters, mirrors the radical perspective shifts as the viewer sees first the painting’s creator and then his smallest creations, a shift that also suggests the religious juxtaposition of the mundane and the divine, mortal and immortal.  The wandering lives of the dozens of characters can feel shapeless and test the viewer’s patience, but the philosophical ideas behind it all are highly provocative and affirming.  At one point, Bruegel says that his painting “must be large enough to hold everything,” and that ability to include both the high and the low in his art is dramatized and analyzed here especially.  This quality is a peculiarly medieval trait, despite the fact that Bruegel was a man of the Renaissance/Reformation era.  One can see it in medieval literature like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the mingling of the sacred and profane, or in Piers Plowman, where the narrator can telescope from a view of a tower or a single man, zooming into that object with a word and discovering whole valleys, multitudes, and worlds within.  The film achieves a similar feat by juxtaposing a young peasant couple making love or a peddler dancing and drunkenly leering with a view from above on a mountain that suggests the perspective of God, “the great miller of heaven, grinding out the bread of life.”  This is a rare quality, almost unheard of in today’s art and literature, both hugely ambitious and warmly compassionate to the smallest person and thing.  The only recent film I can think of that attempts something similar is The Tree of Life, but that of course has none of the medieval flavor.

However, as I mentioned the film often feels shapeless and meandering.  It does not demand your emotional involvement, it observes and offers commentary, inviting analysis only if one is willing to put in the effort.  There is complex symbolism bound up in Bruegel’s painting, and if nothing else the film ought to make you appreciate the genius of the artist and his work.  The Way to Calvary encompasses a whole world, suggesting all of life and the Biblical drama of salvation inside its 4 foot by 5 foot frame.  There is the Tree of Life on the left and the Tree of Death on the right, and in between are the humble multitudes going about their business, living and dying in ignorance of the great drama playing out among them.  For in the center of the frame is Christ, one Man among many, but upon whom all else rests.  It is the achievement of the painting--and of all the greatest art, the film suggests--to capture the ultimate truths of life in a single image of such surpassing beauty that the audience is transfixed, made to know something which had heretofore been obscured.  
In the end, perhaps the film can be taken as an illustration W.H. Auden’s famous poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” itself concerned with another Bruegel painting:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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