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How strange that one writer surveying Christian themes in this year's Sundance Festival came up with a pile of what look to me like uninspiring believer-as-bad-guy throwbacks, but completely overlooked this one, which is tremendously interesting. Thanks to Peter Chattaway for this.
Joe Bendel, Libertas:
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a truly subversive old master. Known for his paintings of the Dutch peasantry as well as Biblical episodes, his five hundred character masterwork The Way to Calvary depicted the Spanish Militia then occupying Flanders as the Roman soldiers crucifying Christ. While Bruegel’s commentary on the Spanish occupation is inescapable, the painting is rife with hidden signifiers, which the painter himself explains in Lech Majewski’s unclassifiable The Mill & the Cross, a painstakingly crafted cinematic recreation of "The Way to Cavalry," which had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Employing state-of-the-art computer generation, scores of seamstresses and artisans, and an enormous 2D background recreation of Bruegel’s celebrated work painted by the director himself, Majewski brings the great tableaux to life on the big screen. Amongst those five hundred characters are Brueghel and his friend a collector, Nicholas Jonghelinck, to whom he explains his projected new painting, "The Way to Calvary."
The film completely challenges linear notions of time, incorporating Christ’s Passion and the world of 1564 Flanders, in which Bruegel and Jongelinck are simultaneous observers and active participants.
Years in the making, Mill is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking. Majewski represents the social continuum of Sixteenth Century Flanders, recreating the mean living conditions of the peasants, the clean, unadorned quarters of the relatively middle class Bruegel, and the privileged environment of the well-to-do Jongelinck. Majewski’s visuals are often arresting, like the scenes of art director Stanislaw Porczyk’s towering mill, which resembles the enormous set pieces of Terry Gilliam films. Perhaps most stunning are the wide shots of the Calvary landscape, with the figures literally coming alive on Bruegel’s canvas. Yet, Majewski also captures moments of both tender intimacy and graphic torture, rendered with powerful immediacy.
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Dennis Harvey, Variety:
An extraordinary imaginative leap, Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross combines old and new technologies allowing the viewer to live inside the painting -- Flemish master Pieter Bruegel's 1564 "The Procession to Calvary," an epic canvas depicting both Christ's crucifixion and the artist's homeland brutalization by Spanish occupiers. Neither conventional costume drama nor abstract objet d'art, this visually ravishing, surprisingly beguiling gamble won't fit any standard arthouse niche. . . .
Opening setpiece stages the complex painting via a combination of live actors (and horses), bluescreen effects and 2D backdrops. Its crowded landscape features some 500 historical, religious, contemporary and symbolic figures, with biblical travails depicted alongside sufferings of Flemish citizens persecuted by representatives of the Spanish inquisition. We continually revisit this tableau, in whole and part, while other scenes are frequently modeled on several other paintings by Bruegel the Elder.
Representing God atop an enormous windmill tower is a miller impassively regarding various scenes from his lofty perch. They include the seizure by red-coated militia of one peasant who is tortured and killed for presumed heresy. Later, another hapless soul is literally crucified for some other crime.
Periodically commenting sorrowfully on this state of affairs -- either alone or in conversation with the artist -- is a wealthy burgher appalled by the invaders' misrule, even if he himself seems immune from harm. A mother whose son has been dragged off to slaughter delivers in voiceover lamentations that are more personal and poetic; she is also the painting's Virgin Mary model. Meanwhile, Breughel himself bemusedly explains the hidden meanings scattered throughout his masterwork, often in the form of conflated religious allegory and political protest.
Not everything is grim here, however. Indeed much of "The Mill and the Cross" delights, with episodes of rambunctious humor among some rural ne'er-do-wells and a roving pack of joyfully rowdy children. Life does go on, despite the climate of fear and cruelty. . . .