The Spanish Inquisition: In 1564, Flanders is overrun by Spanish soldiers, atop their horses and wearing savagely “red tunics,” running down, brutalizing, “crucifying” Protestants for being “heretics” as a member of the community, painter Pieter Bruegel, plans and orchestrates outdoors one of his masterpieces, Procession on the Way to Calvary, in which the whipped Jesus is momentarily stilled by loss of blood and the weight of the cross he is carrying—not that many in the painting, which is marked by an intricate burst of Bosch-like activity, seems to notice. Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) conflates realms and times: Jesus’s; his own. (Through Bruegel, of course, the filmmaker is also tossing our own time into the mix.) His is a secular treatment of a sacred subject, which is all but lost to the eye amidst quotidian bustle, and in which an actual miller, producing the grain from which bread is made, replaces God or any symbol thereof in the highest inhabited position, in the tower of a windmill, which is perched atop a lofty rock formation. Throughout, Bruegel explains what he is sketching or arranging to his patron, Nicolaas Jongelinck (Michael York, inept). For the most part, though, the film is silent; dialogue is exceedingly spare, although we hear farm animals and the whistle of the wind.
From Poland and Sweden, but spoken in English, The Mill and the Cross is a gorgeous film, beautifully color-photograped and digitally enhanced to provide a vivid sense of the painting’s creation; but I simply cannot draw a convincing line between the cruelty that the filmmaker, Lech Majewski, conjures for the sake of historical truth and the cruelty he inflicts upon us because that’s what he is driven to do—as far as I can tell, what he is always driven to do. Still, it would be churlish of me to deny this sick puppy his due; I am therefore naming him and collaborator Adam Sikora 2011’s best cinematographers.
I cannot recommend the film, however. Its insights into the creative process are too clichéd and limited to offset the nastiness and unpleasantness of Majewski’s temperament and agenda.
Least convincing of all is Majewski’s attempt to ascribe children’s rambunctiousness, which spills over into cruelty, to the Inquisition, invasion and occupation. I have a simpler explanation: Boys will be boys.
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