'Cross' slow, but rewarding

The Mill and the Cross

The Mill and the Cross

LIZ BRAUN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:48 PM ET

Let's take a stroll through The Way to Calvary, the 16th century painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The painting is brought to life in The Mill and the Cross, a film about Bruegel, his patron, the people of Flanders and the red-coated Spanish Catholic soldiers intent upon disrupting lives in the name of God. Based on the book by Michael F. Gibson, The Mill and the Cross is an historical, religious and social document that relates to the painting and to the lives of the people therein.

There is almost no dialogue. The film involves new CG technology and 3D effects, and the filmmaker spent years creating for the screen the environment to be inhabited by the approximately 500 people in Bruegel's painting.

There's a lot going on here. Bruegel's painting involves the daily activity of a huge group of people, all going about their individual business as they also pay attention to, among other things, the hanging of two criminals.

Riding through their number are Spanish soldiers, dressed in red, looking for heretics to beat or bury alive. Hidden in all this is Christ and his cross, but the eye is drawn to the arrest of Simon of Cyrene, for example, rather than to Jesus. As Bruegel (Rutger Hauer), explains, that's because, "All these world-altering events go unnoticed by the mob."

High above the scene is the mill, a windmill on top of a rough needle of rock with the miller overlooking all below as if he were God. The 'movement' of the painting is from left to right, from abundance and greenery giving way to death, and into this allegorical landscape, The Mill and the Cross introduces the lives of the people.

The film follows Bruegel, clutching his drawings and talking to his patron (Michael York) while his many children roughhouse in the background. Here is a young couple and their calf, happily buying bread. But here are the red-coated soldiers, attacking the young man for heresy -- real or imagined -- and leaving his body so the crows can peck at his eyes.

Charlotte Rampling appear as a model for the Virgin Mary, talking about the life of her doomed son. People sing, dance on the village green, kiss, make love, bake bread, scrub floors. Animals wander across the scenery. The people go on with their lives. Bruegel organizes them into his painting.

Not too surprisingly, The Mill and the Cross is visually transporting, a painterly undertaking in every sense of the word. It's a neat case of a contemporary art form conveying to an audience what the painting itself might have conveyed to its viewers hundreds of years ago. The Mill and the Cross will be too slow for many moviegoers, but any interest in the painting or the painter is well rewarded here.


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