Perkins_DavidEach month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book or other artistic or literary work they are currently engaging in their scholarship. Our March recommendation is offered by Dave Perkins, Associate Director of the Religion in the Arts and Contemporary Culture program. Dr. Perkins recommends The Mill and the Cross (2011).

Polish director Lech Majewski described his 2011 film The Mill and the Cross as “art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life.”  As the painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder—played by Rutger Hauer—works on his painting “The Way to Calvary” (1564), the painting comes to life. If the film Girl With a Pearl Earring is a painting inside a movie, The Mill and the Cross is a movie inside a painting, a “living painting film” as one reviewer described it.  The true star of this film is Bruegel’s masterpiece. In Majewski’s hands, “The Way to Calvary” comes alive not simply as setting and backdrop, but as actor and story.

The Mill and the Cross is a challenge and a gift. Majewski (himself a painter) conjures a cinematic beauty that is immediately arresting and, ultimately, unforgettable.  The film’s aesthetic scope is both sweeping and, with the help of technology, finely articulated.  In an era where films are taken to task for their overreliance on computer generated content, The Mill and the Cross is a model of the creative partnership now possible between theatre and technology.  In the present cultural climate, it is meaningful to me that such a forward-reaching, experimental film be one with strong religious subject matter.


Along with its aesthetic merits, The Mill and the Cross presents a challenge; it resists casual viewing.  To begin, the film has two narrative tracks.  The first involves the stories depicted or implied in Bruegel’s painting.  The second track pivots on the actions and words, as spare as the film’s dialog may be, of Bruegel, his friends, family, and community at the time of the painting’s creation.  Majewski stitches the two narrative sources into one cloth, blurring the lines of where one ends and the other begins.  Weaving another color into their narrative cloth, both the painter and the filmmaker bring Jesus, the only character not dressed in era-correct attire, into the amalgam as a third narrative element.  Departing from what movie audiences have come to expect, in few ways could this film be called movie entertainment.  However, to those willing to meet the film’s challenges, it is a gift.  Especially to a viewer interested in the creative transposition of Biblical themes into new, fresh contexts, the film can be rewarding.

From the opening, the viewer is thrown off balance by the unsettling quiet of Bruegel’s pre-modern countryside.  The ambient noise of our world is jarringly missing.  Further complicating the viewer’s unease, Majewski takes a minimalistic approach to music and sonic enhancements, deepening the aural void. These qualities, along with an atypical scarcity of dialog set the viewer adrift without a compass.  Majewski places the burden on the viewer to develop the eyes and ears necessary for a full experience of the film.  At first, this burden is an annoyance; as conditioned moviegoers, we resent being made to work.  However, as the richness of the film’s visual poetics increases in weight, the desire to fully participate in the viewing experience takes hold.

The action begins with Bruegel preparing his models—dressing them and staging them as they will appear in “The Way to Calvary.”  This is happening in real time, but, also, in situ, against the painting’s dramatic landscape.  Towering behind a grassy expanse is an inaccessible craggy mountain peak.  Incongruously perched upon the peak is a mill with sails motionless but ready to catch the wind.  Bruegel explains to his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), “The mill is the axis around which the people circle between life and death.”  “The miller is the great miller of heaven grinding the bread of life.”  Dispassionately, the miller looks down upon Bruegel’s characters—the good and the bad.  Life goes on. In the foreground, the townspeople are occupied, singularly and in groups, with the activities of daily life, which, on this particular day, includes a crucifixion.

In another scene, we watch over Bruegel’s shoulder as he works on an incomplete iteration of the painting.  Scattered over the grassy foreground are sparse groupings of the painting’s characters.  Most of them stand fixed as Bruegel painted them.  Barely noticeable at first is subtle movement—a peasant in the foreground, two horses in the distance. It is at this moment that we enter into the life and action of the painting. We meet several of the painting’s characters such as a young couple waking with the first light of day.  Their living space is rustic and cramped and shared with a lovely spotted calf.  Calf in tow, the couple arrives at an open-air market on the edge of town where they purchase a loaf of bread.  No sooner is the bread blessed and broken, than the young man is arrested by cavalry soldiers. The sound of saddle leather and spurs accompanies the wife’s wailing.  The young man is whipped, beaten and lashed to a wagon wheel on which he is hoisted high in the air atop a “tree of death.”  Crows circle to feast on his undead flesh.

The young man’s execution foreshadows the film’s climax, the crucifixion of Christ transposed to 16 C. Flanders during Spanish occupation.  Majewski creates a dramatic tension that disallows the viewer to let go fully and surrender to the film’s beauty.  In the absence of dialog, the friction between the serene and intoxicating beauty of the setting and the threat of violence becomes the film’s most effective dramatic element.

With his patron observing, Bruegel sketches Mary (Charlotte Rampling) as she weeps in anticipation of Jesus’ death.  To depict the crucifixion, Bruegel has chosen the moment when Simon of Cyrene is conscripted to carry Jesus’ cross.  Bruegel’s onlookers are more interested in Simon’s inconvenience than with Jesus’ plight.  Bruegel: “I must hide him (Jesus) from the eye.”  Patron: “Why?”  Bruegel: “Because he is the most important element.”  Here is the artists’ (Bruegel’s and Majewski’s) contention that much of the truly significant is often missed in the course of what seems a relatively typical day.  Majewski is about to show Bruegel performing one of the roles artists perform most uniquely.

The patron asks, “Do you think you can express [all of] this?  How?”  In what, to this viewer, is the film’s most memorable scene, Bruegel responds to his patron’s query “How?” by slowly raising his right hand toward heaven.  Seeing the artist’s raised hand, the miller follows suit.  In obedience to the miller’s charge, the mill’s sails stop turning, its gears slow to a stop, grain for the life-sustaining bread of life stops streaming forth. The world comes to a standstill.  This is for the benefit of us, the viewers.  With time at a standstill, we are able to sift through the world’s chaos, to parse the flux of the many layers of activity depicted in “The Way to Calvary.” The filmmaker gives us both time and perspective through which to find meaning.  This scene is Majewski’s commentary on one of art’s great contributions—to freeze events and bodies, which would otherwise dissipate in the mist of time, lost to future eyes and minds.  Majewski brings “The Way to Calvary” to life only to stop it for our moment of reflection if we will take the time to grasp what it offers.

When Majewski’s work is done and cinematic action fades to black, light slowly returns revealing that we have leapt forward five centuries and are standing before Bruegel’s painting where it hangs, day-in-day-out, in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.  Seeing it surrounded by other works, one among many, smaller than I would have imagined, the painting is humbled.  Yet, as I gaze at the work I know, somehow, that I share with it deep secrets.

Director: Lech Majewski
Writer: Michael Francis Gibson, Lech Majewski
Starring: Rutger Hauer (Pieter Bruegel the Elder), Charlotte Rampling (the Virgin Mary), Michael York (Nicolaes Jonghelinck, Bruegel’s patron)

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