Sunday evening at the IFFR saw the European premiere of an interesting cinematic experiment, with Lech Majewski's 'The Mill and the Cross'. In stunning detail, the film brings to life the painting 'The Procession to Calvary' (also known as 'Christ Carrying the Cross') by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Rather than creating yet another artist's biopic, the film explores the stories and symbolism of this single painting - in a way that perhaps only Kurosawa attempted before, with the Van Gogh chapter in 'Dreams'. Much of its inspiration comes from the book of the same title by Michael Francis Gibson, who also cowrote the screenplay.
Itself a recreation of the Passion of the Christ in a Medieval Flemish landscape, with Spanish soldiers replacing Romans, Bruegel's painting is a rich Christian as well as political allegory. Pointing out the parallels and contrasts between the mill and the cross, between the tree of life on the left and the tree of death on the right, and between the two circles of human activity in the background - it only scratches the surface of the myriad of stories in this painting.
The film attempts to explain some of the symbolism by having Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) comment while sketching. While this may sound as a slightly crude stylistic device, it gives Majewski the chance to emphasize a crucial element of Bruegel's philosophy. In the scene depicted, of Christ collapsing under the weight of the cross, the spectators are all looking the other way (to Simon who is struggling to help him). Distracted, they are missing what is happening - perhaps not grasping its importance, or simply not caring.
Much more could be said about the painting, and the film doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive study - rather it provides an intriguing introduction. Describing his attitude towards Bruegel's painting in a pre-screening Q&A, Majevski said: "Bruegel is the host and I'm the guest. I just sit there and drink my tea." It nicely sums up the film's humble approach, which does add a new layer of meaning to the painting but mostly just invites the spectator into its world. Of course, the painting does this too, but when was the last time you looked at a painting for 90 minutes?