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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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Anselm: Indifferent toward religion as a young man, Anselm became one of the Church's greatest theologians and leaders. He received the title "Father of Scholasticism" for his attempt to analyze and illumine the truths of faith through the aid of reason. 
<p>At 15, Anselm wanted to enter a monastery, but was refused acceptance because of his father's opposition. Twelve years later, after careless disinterest in religion and years of worldly living, he finally fulfilled his desire to be a monk. He entered the monastery of Bec in Normandy, three years later was elected prior and 15 years later was unanimously chosen abbot. </p><p>Considered an original and independent thinker, Anselm was admired for his patience, gentleness and teaching skill. Under his leadership, the abbey of Bec became a monastic school, influential in philosophical and theological studies. </p><p>During these years, at the community's request, Anselm began publishing his theological works, comparable to those of St. Augustine (August 28). His best-known work is the book <i>Cur Deus Homo</i> ("Why God Became Man"). </p><p>At 60, against his will, Anselm was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. His appointment was opposed at first by England's King William Rufus and later accepted. Rufus persistently refused to cooperate with efforts to reform the Church. </p><p>Anselm finally went into voluntary exile until Rufus died in 1100. He was then recalled to England by Rufus's brother and successor, Henry I. Disagreeing fearlessly with Henry over the king's insistence on investing England's bishops, Anselm spent another three years in exile in Rome. </p><p>His care and concern extended to the very poorest people; he opposed the slave trade. Anselm obtained from the national council at Westminster the passage of a resolution prohibiting the sale of human beings.</p> American Catholic Blog There is one more important person you must forgive: yourself. Many times we think we’ve sinned so badly that God can’t let us off the hook so simply. But His mercy is simple, and it is open to all hearts that turn to Him.


 
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