Unlike a film, a book, or a television song, a painting has infinite life. The artist weaves his narrative with a brush, his work not a mimicry but an impression of a time that comes and goes. It’s this eternal life that enlivens “The Mill and the Cross,” a biography not of a person, but of “The Way to Calvary,” a 16th century creation detailing a crucifixion in the midst of a busy field of Flanders. The painting itself is dense with detail and incidence, and a movie capturing the context of what occurs inside would go on forever.
Fortunately, filmmaker Lech Majewski has a background in creating such busy, ornate tableaus. He’s not exactly one of those off-the-grid storytellers the studios are desperate to indoctrinate. Considering the multi-tiered, complex nature of his fairly challenging résumé, the much more commercial “The Mill and the Cross” boosts him from completely inscrutable installation-level artist to a somewhat more humanist Peter Greenaway.
Which isn’t to say that Majewski moving to a more accessible style of storytelling is a vertical shift, though “The Mill and the Cross” is both dense in detail and ideas, but also remarkably involving in a way that suggests more than a movie. This is the effect studios blindly speak about when they refer to what the 3D format is adding to the cinema. Majewski has decided not only to bring to life the happenings of “The Way to Calvary” but also to showcase the creative process of Pieter Bruegel, creating a dual narrative informed by Majewski’s visuals.
Using a combination of computer effects, lushly painted background, and ornate, Academy-worthy costuming, Majewski finds a way to place you inside a world that feels, if not representative of that era to a tee, at least its own evocative pastoral atmosphere. It’s a feast for the eyes, and in a more selective society, it would be more rewarding for the eyes had we gotten Majewski’s palette on IMAX screens than, say, dull visual entertainments like the Marvel movies.
To say Majewski’s free-flowing narrative is attempting total immersion is to ignore that, through this elaborate visual style, “The Mill and the Cross” is at once alive, vital even, and also dormant, quiet. Though the sound design seems thick with activity, it feels more of an in-tandem product with the visual style. Majewski pays his respects to “The Way to Calvary” by turning it into a 3D experience. You feel the crows’ beaks attack carcasses strewn on the side of the road. You shrink from the grasping hands of needy, playful children ready for dinner. Majewski’s characters don’t feel like people filling in the margins, but like a real society trapped in a unique, ethereal world.
As Bruegel, Rutger Hauer is wonderfully nuanced, giving a forceful, commanding performance that holds the screen, even as the film’s visually-stunning tableau glides through. He floats in and out of his own work, tracing the outlines of complex cobwebs in order to build the artifice of his creation. The lines on his face, the crevasse of his cheek, they’ve never been more expressive or more fascinating. In a film loaded with endlessly inventive riches for the eye, it’s Hauer whom you can’t look away from. [A]