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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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Andrew Dung-Lac and Companions: Andrew Dung-Lac was one of 117 people martyred in Vietnam between 1820 and 1862. Members of this group were beatified on four different occasions between 1900 and 1951. All were canonized by St. John Paul II. 
<p>Christianity came to Vietnam (then three separate kingdoms) through the Portuguese. Jesuits opened the first permanent mission at Da Nang in 1615. They ministered to Japanese Catholics who had been driven from Japan. </p><p>The king of one of the kingdoms banned all foreign missionaries and tried to make all Vietnamese deny their faith by trampling on a crucifix. Like the priest-holes in Ireland during English persecution, many hiding places were offered in homes of the faithful. </p><p>Severe persecutions were again launched three times in the 19th century. During the six decades after 1820, between 100,000 and 300,000 Catholics were killed or subjected to great hardship. Foreign missionaries martyred in the first wave included priests of the Paris Mission Society, and Spanish Dominican priests and tertiaries. </p><p>Persecution broke out again in 1847 when the emperor suspected foreign missionaries and Vietnamese Christians of sympathizing with a rebellion led by of one of his sons. </p><p>The last of the martyrs were 17 laypersons, one of them a 9-year-old, executed in 1862. That year a treaty with France guaranteed religious freedom to Catholics, but it did not stop all persecution. </p><p>By 1954 there were over a million and a half Catholics—about seven percent of the population—in the north. Buddhists represented about 60 percent. Persistent persecution forced some 670,000 Catholics to abandon lands, homes and possessions and flee to the south. In 1964, there were still 833,000 Catholics in the north, but many were in prison. In the south, Catholics were enjoying the first decade of religious freedom in centuries, their numbers swelled by refugees. </p><p>During the Vietnamese war, Catholics again suffered in the north, and again moved to the south in great numbers. Now the whole country is under Communist rule.</p> American Catholic Blog To replace our sins with virtues may seem like a daunting task, but fortunately we can follow the example of the saints who have 
successfully defeated these sins in their lifetimes. They provide us with a way forward so that we, too, can live holy, virtuous lives.

 
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