The Mill & the Cross
There is a moment in The Mill & the Cross in which the power of art, in particular sacred art, to capture the eternal in the hugger-mugger of ordinary life—and even in the most horrific and seemingly meaningless events—is revealed with stunning clarity. André Bazin, the great Catholic film critic and theorist, wrote about the mission of art to rescue the world from transience and corruption, to capture moments and events in time and space before they slip into the irretrievable past, and so bear witness to the hand of God in creation. I don't know if I've ever seen this idea more resoundingly affirmed than in The Mill & the Cross.
If that description intrigues you and makes you want to see the film, I almost think you should stop reading here until you've had a chance to see it, especially if you're lucky enough to catch it on the big screen. I've seen The Mill & the Cross twice, and I'm grateful that I went into my first screening stone cold, without having read a single review or description.
Coming out of my first screening, I wanted more than reviews: I wanted a book, preferably well illustrated with photographs. I was gratified to learn that there is such a book—two books, in fact. The Mill and the Cross, by art critic Michael Francis Gibson, is an analysis of Bruegel's 1564 painting The Way to Calvary, and inspired the film, which Gibson cowrote with Polish artist and filmmaker Lech Majewski. Gibson and Majewski also collaborated on a second, expanded edition of The Mill and the Cross that combines images from the painting and Gibson's text with notes from the film production as well as photographs and storyboards.
The Mill & the Cross (the film; note the ampersand) is thus a sort of dialogue between two artists across half a millennium, mediated by a writer. Like Gibson's text, the film is a meditation on Bruegel and The Way to Calvary. The painting is in a way an immersive experience: It is a large panel, about 4 feet by 5½ feet, crammed with such a wealth of detail, depicting a vast throng of about 500 people of all walks of life—peasants, tradesmen, clerics, merchants, officers, nobles—that the viewer is drawn to stand closer and closer to appreciate each detail in turn.
The film makes the experience even more immersive, bringing the world of the painting to life with an extraordinary digital blend of live action, 2D and 3D imagery, and bluescreen photography. The world it evokes is partly Bruegel's own Flemish world; in keeping with time-honored custom, Bruegel vested The Way to Calvary in contemporary garb, and most of the throng are dressed as 16th-century Flemings, and go about their business unaware of the sacred drama inconspicuously unfolding in their midst. Provocatively, the armed riders in red tunics escorting Christ to his death are not literal Roman soldiers, but Spanish police—mercenaries of Philip II policing Flanders, putting Protestant heretics to death.
The film likewise depicts glimpses of 16th-century Flemish routine: men chopping down a tree in the forest; a horse drawing a cart; a peddler packing a large pack. Some of these vignettes connect with details in The Way to Calvary; others don't. One household, in which a young wife tends a large clan of raucous children, is Bruegel's own.