While it’s far from easy going, The Mill And The Cross is worth attempting for its stunning visuals alone. The film was inspired by Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 painting The Way To Calvary, a landscape that imagines Christ’s procession coming through what was, for the painter, contemporary Flanders, escorted through a crowd of peasants by occupying Spaniards, while a mill high on a mountain overlooks the proceedings. Polish director Lech Majewski (Gospel According To Harry) brings the scene and the world in which it takes place to life in a striking, splendid fashion, combining real countrysides, live actors, and greenscreened matte backgrounds for a look that isn’t fully like its closest cinematic relatives, The Lady & The Duke and Girl With A Pearl Earring. It’s exquisitely all its own.
Rutger Hauer plays Bruegel, who over the course of the film, conceptualizes and explains the ideas behind the painting, protesting the cruelty of the red-cloaked inquisitors, and offering a complicated contemplation of the capacity life has for continuing in the face of such cruelty. Michael York is Bruegel’s friend and patron, a wealthy merchant, and Charlotte Rampling takes the role of Mary, doomed to watch her son meet his fate. Other figures are more symbolic (and often silent), like the miller, who rises from his bed, wakes his assistant, and sits down to breakfast in one gorgeous chiaroscuro shot, or a group of children only concerned with play.
There are scenes of unhurried domesticity—a man selling bread on a hillside, a piper, grain being ground. And there are scenes of matter-of-fact violence, from a man tied to wheel on a stake being eaten by crows to another accused heretic being buried alive. As Hauer explains, the mill, atop its strange perch, stands in for the viewpoint of an impassive God. Similarly, the even tone with which The Mill And The Cross takes in these events can be seen as representing the same distance, the world far below, the small people, and even their potential savior. The images become pieces of Bruegel’s painting, a panorama both mundane and fantastic, while a motif of frames—shots seen through archways, doors, and barred windows—reminds viewers of the source for the film’s visual long before it pulls out to reveal the finished work, hanging in a museum gallery.