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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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Monica: The circumstances of St. Monica’s life could have made her a nagging wife, a bitter daughter-in-law and a despairing parent, yet she did not give way to any of these temptations. Although she was a Christian, her parents gave her in marriage to a pagan, Patricius, who lived in her hometown of Tagaste in North Africa. Patricius had some redeeming features, but he had a violent temper and was licentious. Monica also had to bear with a cantankerous mother-in-law who lived in her home. Patricius criticized his wife because of her charity and piety, but always respected her. Monica’s prayers and example finally won her husband and mother-in-law to Christianity. Her husband died in 371, one year after his baptism. 
<p>Monica had at least three children who survived infancy. The oldest, Augustine (August 28) , is the most famous. At the time of his father’s death, Augustine was 17 and a rhetoric student in Carthage. Monica was distressed to learn that her son had accepted the Manichean heresy (all flesh is evil)  and was living an immoral life. For a while, she refused to let him eat or sleep in her house. Then one night she had a vision that assured her Augustine would return to the faith. From that time on, she stayed close to her son, praying and fasting for him. In fact, she often stayed much closer than Augustine wanted. </p><p>When he was 29, Augustine decided to go to Rome to teach rhetoric. Monica was determined to go along. One night he told his mother that he was going to the dock to say goodbye to a friend. Instead, he set sail for Rome. Monica was heartbroken when she learned of Augustine’s trick, but she still followed him. She arrived in Rome only to find that he had left for Milan. Although travel was difficult, Monica pursued him to Milan. </p><p>In Milan, Augustine came under the influence of the bishop, St. Ambrose, who also became Monica’s spiritual director. She accepted his advice in everything and had the humility to give up some practices that had become second nature to her (see Quote, below). Monica became a leader of the devout women in Milan as she had been in Tagaste. </p><p>She continued her prayers for Augustine during his years of instruction. At Easter, 387, St. Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends. Soon after, his party left for Africa. Although no one else was aware of it, Monica knew her life was near the end. She told Augustine, “Son, nothing in this world now affords me delight. I do not know what there is now left for me to do or why I am still here, all my hopes in this world being now fulfilled.” She became ill shortly after and suffered severely for nine days before her death. </p><p>Almost all we know about St. Monica is in the writings of St. Augustine, especially his <i>Confessions</i>.</p> American Catholic Blog Heavenly Father, I am sure there are frequently tiny miracles where you protect us and are present to us although you always remain anonymous. Help me appreciate how carefully you watch over me and my loved ones all day long, and be sensitive enough to stay close to you. I ask this in Jesus's name. Amen.

 
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