Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Mill and the Cross (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway  

The Mill and the Cross

Current cinema is often a Pop medium, especially when it handles subjects of art history in 1564. The rectangle of the movie screen might seem a devil's light-box to the spirits of  Van Gogh, Vermeer or Brueghel:a moving painting within a painting. Sorcery from the sky.
Such is the sensation produced by the film "The Mill and The Cross", directed by Lech Majewski.

Majewski , who was the original screenwriter for Julian Schnabel's film on Jean Michel Basquiat, possesses a painter's eye. He makes it seem as if Brueghel could just as well be a painter of flickering triptychs as much as a master painter of religious tableaux.

"The Mill and The Cross" draws you in with its deceptively simple narrative. The film is essentially conceptual. It doesn't dramatize so much as simply show the elements and the people contained within Brueghel's 1564 work " Way to Cavalry". Under Majewski's lens, peasants simply go to work each day with their horses. They eat and holler, laugh, fart, and milk cows while kids hop and scamper like mischievous  angels in a rustic cosmos. Even drunks revolve and pinwheel about. All of nature moves underfoot.

Actor Rutger Hauer plays Brueghel, his face a worn palette against  a middle gray sky.  With his huge sketchbook that seems made for a giant, he is stern and impassive, scarcely a smile crosses his face. Hauer's Brueghel is a bit like William Blake's "Urizen" or Orson Welles especially in voiceover. Mostly Hauer sketches and fusses having no need for earthly sustenance.

Michael York also appears in the film as  Nicolaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy patron in a burgundy velvet suit. York stands about and laments the state of religious persecution in 1564. And Charlotte Rampling makes a cameo in all of her usual severe intensity. Rampling is a living Brueghel.

We also see the persecution of Jesus here, his body, as in the painting, unnaturally white, a spaceman: The First Man who fell to Earth, worlds before David Bowie. The movie pairs an average man being violently beaten and tied to a wheel with the crucifixion of Jesus as if to make the two of them interchangeable. Just as in Monty Python, Majewski makes the case for a humanistic spirituality that is both subversive and heartfelt. Christ is in all of us.

Most of the characters are pressed in two dimensions. There is little dialogue and no one says much at all. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, there are no spoken words on screen, just the trudging of heavy feet on endless wooden steps. Rather than a drawback, however, this is a delight. Majewski only needs to show what   "Way to Calvary" feels like as it shifts  across the screen in 2011. This is journey of one rectangle composed of paint and quantum space as it travels from  a mill to a museum.

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