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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

The Mill & The Cross

By
John P. McCarthy
Source: Catholic News Service


Rutger Hauer stars in a scene from the movie "The Mill and the Cross."
Inspired by a book-length study of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel's "The Way to Calvary," director Lech Majewski has created an absorbing blend of art history and feature filmmaking.

In "The Mill & The Cross" (Kino Lorber), Polish-born Majewski re-imagines Christ's passion, dramatizes a dark episode in the history of the Catholic Church, experiments with pictorial representation and issues an appeal for religious tolerance -- all without pretension or bias.

The movie will be of special interest to Catholics because it addresses the sectarian strife that arose when armies loyal to the church invaded the Low Countries in the 16th century to suppress Protestant reform. In his book "The Mill and the Cross," Michael Francis Gibson details how Bruegel used allegory to comment on the state of affairs in his native Flanders circa 1546, the year he finished the painting.

The intricacies of "The Way to Calvary," a canvas populated with more than 500 figures, don't seem amenable to cinematic treatment. But Gibson believed Majewski was up to the task and they collaborated on an English-language screenplay. Visually ingenious, the resulting film offers a multilayered panorama encompassing, and imaginatively expanding upon, the painting's genesis and content.

Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel and Michael York portrays his friend and collector, Nicholas Jonghelinck, who commissions a piece that will express his outrage at how Spain's occupying forces are "violating our bodies and souls." Ambitiously and with purposeful misdirection, given the risk of being branded a heretic, Bruegel conceives a complex artwork with meanings concealed inside numerous pastoral tableaux, processions and agrarian symbols.

Meanwhile, Spanish militiamen astride horseback and wearing red tunics are shown violently mistreating peasants. In an incident foreshadowing the Passion, they set upon one young man for no apparent reason, whipping and beating him before lashing his body to a wagon wheel and hoisting it atop a pole. This cruel act occurs on the movie's most literal level, alongside quotidian episodes from the seemingly bucolic world Bruegel depicts. These scenes have no dialogue, including those in which the miller, representing God, surveys the countryside from his mill built on a giant rock.

On the movie's more conceptual plane, Bruegel moves in and out of his painting while explaining his intentions to his patron and sketching preparatory drawings. Eventually, the film adopts the perspective of the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling), who delivers plaintive monologues as her Son and two thieves are executed.

The overall experience is akin to watching a lithograph by Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher spring to life. Majewski employs computer technology without disrupting the period feel or the story's timelessness—and while remaining true to Bruegel's visual aesthetic. The sound effects, which serve a vital function since there's so little dialogue, are equally expressive.

Majewski's tone is calm and evenhanded. You don't sense he favors one Christian denomination or is eager to indict the church or Catholicism per se. Instead, he seems intent on conveying a universal message against religious intolerance and human rights abuses. His film is grounded in the connection between the paschal mystery and social justice, yet since that linkage informs the bedrock of the Catholic faith, Catholic viewers won't find anything radical from a theological standpoint.

Though it lasts less than a minute, arguably the most chilling sequence in "The Mill & The Cross" shows a presumably heretical woman being put in a freshly dug grave and buried alive. Although harsh, such episodes are in accord with the historical record. Therefore, when the camera pulls back from a close-up of "The Way to Calvary" (hanging in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum) at movie's end, we're reminded that we immerse ourselves in artistic masterpieces in order to better understand distressing and regrettable facts about real life.

The film contains moderately graphic violence, including four crucifixions, several whippings and beatings and a woman being buried alive; a few instances of groping; and brief frontal and rear female nudity. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.

*****
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.



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Ignatius of Loyola: The founder of the Jesuits was on his way to military fame and fortune when a cannon ball shattered his leg. Because there were no books of romance on hand during his convalescence, Ignatius whiled away the time reading a life of Christ and lives of the saints. His conscience was deeply touched, and a long, painful turning to Christ began. Having seen the Mother of God in a vision, he made a pilgrimage to her shrine at Montserrat (near Barcelona). He remained for almost a year at nearby Manresa, sometimes with the Dominicans, sometimes in a pauper’s hospice, often in a cave in the hills praying. After a period of great peace of mind, he went through a harrowing trial of scruples. There was no comfort in anything—prayer, fasting, sacraments, penance. At length, his peace of mind returned. 
<p>It was during this year of conversion that Ignatius began to write down material that later became his greatest work, the <em>Spiritual Exercises</em>. </p><p>He finally achieved his purpose of going to the Holy Land, but could not remain, as he planned, because of the hostility of the Turks. He spent the next 11 years in various European universities, studying with great difficulty, beginning almost as a child. Like many others, his orthodoxy was questioned; Ignatius was twice jailed for brief periods. </p><p>In 1534, at the age of 43, he and six others (one of whom was St. Francis Xavier, December 2) vowed to live in poverty and chastity and to go to the Holy Land. If this became impossible, they vowed to offer themselves to the apostolic service of the pope. The latter became the only choice. Four years later Ignatius made the association permanent. The new Society of Jesus was approved by Paul III, and Ignatius was elected to serve as the first general. </p><p>When companions were sent on various missions by the pope, Ignatius remained in Rome, consolidating the new venture, but still finding time to found homes for orphans, catechumens and penitents. He founded the Roman College, intended to be the model of all other colleges of the Society. </p><p>Ignatius was a true mystic. He centered his spiritual life on the essential foundations of Christianity—the Trinity, Christ, the Eucharist. His spirituality is expressed in the Jesuit motto, <i>ad majorem Dei gloriam</i>—“for the greater glory of God.” In his concept, obedience was to be the prominent virtue, to assure the effectiveness and mobility of his men. All activity was to be guided by a true love of the Church and unconditional obedience to the Holy Father, for which reason all professed members took a fourth vow to go wherever the pope should send them for the salvation of souls.</p> American Catholic Blog Jesus’s humanity and His biological need to be fed Himself gives power and personal force to His teaching that when we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, we do it to Him.

 
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