Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Mill and the Cross (Wanous)

Film delivers visual excursion back in time

By CRAIG WANOUSKeynoter Contributor

Visual excursion back in time

Actors recreate Bruegel's 1564 masterpiece, 'The Procession to Calvary.'

The Mill & the Cross, Unrated, 95 min., opens Friday, Dec. 9, at the Tropic Cinema

"The Mill & the Cross," a Polish-Swedish co-production, is almost impossible to categorize and just as hard to describe. It is a slow and tedious yet beautiful film that will probably leave viewers in one of three camps; those who love the dramatic visual effects, those who love art and know the story of the painting at the film's center, and those who say "What the &%#$ was that?"

Co-written and directed by Lech Majewski, the centerpiece of the film is Pieter Bruegel's 1564 masterpiece The Procession to Calvary (sometimes called The Way to Calvary), a large, complex painting that reportedly contains more than 500 individual figures and puts Christ's crucifixion in Bruegel's contemporary 16th century Flanders.

The film borrows its title from the critically acclaimed analysis of Bruegel's painting by art critic Michael Francis Gibson, who co-wrote the screenplay. Using a combination of blue screen, location filming from central Europe and New Zealand and CGI, director Majewski gives the film an almost 3D effect, putting us right inside the painting.

The marvelous opening shot of the movie shows us the villagers as if they were models preparing to be painted, costumed and arranged by Bruegel himself. The final shot of the film zooms out and shows us the real painting hanging in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In between, the imagined real life of the villagers blends with the figures in the painting until it becomes hard to distinguish between the two.

Several themes (I can't call them storylines) run through the film and things happen that have no explanation, almost like live-action snapshots of moments in time that we see but don't understand. The red-coated Spanish are the heavies who ride in, do horrible things, and then ride off. Bruegel's wife and children go about their daily lives, oblivious to the cruelty around them. A giant windmill towers over the landscape, the meaning of which the artist explains to his patron. A young couple buys some bread for a picnic that is fatally interrupted. Musicians scamper around the village for no apparent reason. Another couple takes their treasured calf out for a stroll, pulling it along in a cart.

Only three of the actors have any real dialog. Rutger Hauer plays artist Pieter Bruegel, working on his masterpiece and explaining it to his patron, played by Michael York. Charlotte Rampling plays the model for Mary, the mother of Jesus, whose sad, frowning face never changes. There is almost no other dialog, other than some background chatter in Flemish and Spanish, which is not subtitled. The acting by Hauer, York and Rampling is adequate but not particularly noteworthy. But the costumes are absolutely amazing and don't be surprised if the name Dorota Roqueplo, the costume designer, comes up at Oscar time.

Watching this movie takes patience and a different mindset than most of today's films. There is action and violence, but we observe it as outsiders and don't get drawn in. There is comedy, but it's the humor of real life, not the slapstick or sit-com variety. There is romance and nudity, but it's brief and not explicit. All the elements to make a good film are present. But I can't really call "The Mill & the Cross" a good film. It's more like sitting in a gallery absorbing every detail of a famous masterpiece for an hour-and-a-half. Some people enjoy that, some don't.

So do I recommend "The Mill & the Cross"? Yes and no. For those who don't enjoy art galleries and museums, you may be in the third camp mentioned above and might come out of the theater wishing you could get those 95 minutes back. But for those in the first two camps, I definitely recommend the film. It is a compelling and fascinating theater experience that must be seen on the big screen. (Do not wait for the DVD!) "The Mill & the Cross" is a visually stunning work of art, on film, that takes you inside another stunning work of art, on canvas, and rewards you for your patience.    

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