The Mill and the Cross

What would it be like to step into a great work of art and experience the lives of the people within? That’s the idea behind The Mill and the Cross a languid recreation of “The Way to Calvary,” the 1564 masterpiece by painter Pieter Bruegel. Throughout the film we often see the Flemish renaissance artist painting the scene. But most of the action takes place inside the composition as we observe the community within. It’s an interesting concept, beautifully presented, but the sluggish pace is just too lethargic to enjoy.

For those not familiar with the painting, it represents Christ making his way to his own crucifixion by carrying his cross though a crowded landscape that features hundreds of historic and contemporary figures.  One of the painting’s objectives was seen as protesting the cruelty of the Holy Roman Empire by transposing Christ’s suffering  to the Flanders of his own time. Christ is at the center with a group of his tormentors, but he’s almost hidden amongst the throng of 500 people surrounding him, doing other things. Christ’s passion and religious persecution are examined for a bit, but the picture also spotlights a dozen other characters in brief vignettes as well.

The notion of transforming a painting into a moving picture is an ambitious idea. Unfortunately there simply isn’t enough drama to justify the movie. There’s scarcely any dialogue. What little there is, is rather awkward and clumsily spoken. The story merely lies there to be appreciated much as a painting would be. The problem, this isn’t a painting, but a film where different rules apply. The entire exercise feels academic. Even the well known actors fail to create excitement. Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel with a depression that arouses sadness in the viewer. Michael York is his patron, a wealthy Antwerp merchant.  He’s similarly dreary, giving a routine performance. But the most ludicrous acting choice of all is Charlotte Rampling cast way against type as the Virgin Mary. It’s difficult to imagine an actress less suited to play the Mother of Christ. I suppose this was stunt casting, but the uncharacteristic choice adds nothing to the role.

The actual painting currently hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Indeed it would be much more dramatic to gaze upon the actual artwork for 96 minutes than to watch this boring artistic study. I will admit the movie would make the perfect DVD to sell in the gift shop there, or any art gallery for that matter. As art history, the film is visually incredible, but as a cinematic entertainment, it fails.

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3 Responses to “The Mill and the Cross”

  1. This definitely sounds like an interesting concept for a film. I’ve always liked films that take a certain event (or in this case a painting) and then show it from different perspectives. Sorry to hear that this one didn’t pan out as well as it might have.

  2. Nice review, Marky Mark! (LOL, couldn’t resist). This film has a great concept but your review just confirmed my suspicions: a movie based on a single painting would be terribly boring.

  3. I love art. I thought, how exciting would it be to capture the moment in time, of a famous painting. Bad idea. At least in this case. It was beautifully shot, but just boring.

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