Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 20, 2011 4:56 pm 
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A sixteenth-century Flemish painting and its world brought to life on screen

Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and Charlotte Rampling are among the luminaries involved in the making of this strikingly beautiful as well as emotionally shattering art film recreating the making of a great painting. It's Pieter Bruegel the Elder's 1564 "The Procession to Calvary" (also known as "The Way to Calvary"), a panoramic vision showing both the Crucifixion of Christ and the brutalization of Bruegel's Flemish homeland by its contemporary Spanish occupiers. The Polish director Majewski uses state of the art techniques, including high-definition digital visuals, to bring the viewer, and his large cast in period costume, into the painting. The effect, says leading Variety film critic Dennis Harvey, may be enough (if the film is seen by the right audiences) to carry the director into the kind of international prominence enjoyed by Alexei Sokurov with his celebrated museum tour deforce, Russian Ark. LIke Sokurov's single-take wonder, The Mill and the Cross isn't exactly a documentry, or an art piece, or a feature film; it's sui generis. On the other hand, some who saw this film at its February Rotterdam screening felt that it "cried out for the 3D treatment" and without that "falls flat." This is the view of Hollywood Reporter's Neil young, who does, however, give the film, a Polish/Swedish co-production spoken (perhaps unfortunately) in English, credit for providing viewers with the full historical context of the painting.

Some of us are not passionate fans of the master Sokurov's museum tour de force to begin with, and it is true that the use of English and Michael York's initial voiceovers, which bring to mind his parodic turn in Austin Powers, but it's highyl debatable whether any screen situation ever cried out for the 3D treatment. What happens here is just fine. The imaginative transfer of an artist's life on film has some of the luminosity of Peter Webber's Vermeer story, Girl With Pearl Earring, and some of the life and imagination of Derek Jarman's Caravaggio. (These are staged in English too, and the succeed because of their visual imagination.) However while it recreates the cruelty of the Spanish militia, who punish a supposed heretic by beating him mercilessly, strapping him to a wheel, and hoisting him high on a pole to have his eyes pecked out by crows, and dramatizes Bruegel's own household with a dozen wicked children dancing about in bedclothes, the main focus in on the creation of this single painting.

Hauer as Bruegel painstakingly goes over a big sketch explaining to us the Flemish painter's special conception. Bruegel famously reverses the usual order priorities. Mary and Jesus and the cross are down to one side on the right. High up in the painting, in the place of God is a grain mill, center of life for the people, as we see with the sacramental way loaves of bread are purchased and distributed to the family, and the miller is in the place of God. An actual mill and its inhabitants and workers are a vivid presence in the film. The landscape, with more than a hundred figures distrubted over it and given almost equal weight, is a "field full of folk," a panorama of ordinary humanity. In place of the Roman Centurians are the Spanish militia, their contemporary equivalent for the painter. Bruegel's wealthy patron Nicholas Jonghelinck (Michael York) is shown lamenting how he must witness the daily inhumanity and stupidity of the occupiers. By the way, though the English dialogue undercuts the visual realism, the first 27 minutes of the film are without any dialogue and are a marvelous opportunities for the costumes and settings to work their magic and prepare us to respond non-verbally to the purely visual language of the painting.


Majewski's inspiration is that the staging of the painting is the staging of the crucifixion in a sixteenth-century Flemish setting; the distinction is deliberately blurred, and we enter thus into the world of Bruegel's vivid imagination as well as the elaborate process of staging the painting, which is very much like making a movie on location. Majewski has already established the menace of the Spanish militiamen with the horrific torture to death of the protestant. Now the danger they represent feels doubly real as the martyrdom of Christ is staged. Shooting in four different countries, Majewski builds up his scene with awesome verisimilitude and a brilliantly original sense of the particular detail. Then he creates a miraculously dramatic effect when Jonghelinck asks Bruegel, "You think you can capture the power of all this?" And Bruegel says "Yes," and raises his hand, and God, in the person of the miller high on the mountaintop, raises his hand, and the mill and everything in the field freezes, showing how Bruegel, like in his word "the spider," which we've seen him observe building its web, constructs his whole scene in a way that illustrates how in the world of ordinary people, the grand central figures of a great historical event usually go unnoticed, even though they are all there.


This film may seem simply "the staging of a painting," and of the making of the painting, but that is to overlook the fact that Majewski's cinematic effects are world class throughout. His Calvary ranks with the best of them -- as, of course, does Bruegel's. In the process of his cinematic recreation of the painting and the Christian story, Majewski brings home to us how intensely real that story was to Europeans of earlier centuries and therefore how natural it was for them to retell it in the visual language of their own day, the wimples and codpieces, the red coats of the Spanish soldiers, and all the rest. A triumph.

Screenplay by Michael Francis Gibson and Lech Majewski. Directors of photography Lech Majewski and Adam Sikora. The film, which is 95min. long, debuted at Sundance in January 2011. Seen and reviewed as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, April 22-May 4, 2011.

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