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By Brian Lafferty


October 7, 2011 (San Diego) – The Mill and the Cross is one of the year’s most original films. That’s not something I’ve been able to say a lot this year…or last year, for that matter. It’s the first movie to the best of my knowledge that combines the art of painting with the art of filmmaking. It’s so original and unique that explaining the concept to my friends presented much difficulty. You’ll just have to take my word for it and head to the Ken Cinema.


The movie depicts Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Rutger Hauer) painting The Way to Calvary. It’s not, however, told in a traditional manner. The entire movie takes place within the painting as Bruegel fills in the “canvas” with, among other stories and characters, a metaphorical retelling of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and the Spanish occupation of Flanders in the 16th century.


I sat in the theater, rapt with wonder. Imagine the characters you see inside a painting are real people, not just figures. What if each of them had a story? What if with each brush stroke, the painter creates a real actual world within the canvas? Even though the entire film is set within the painting, I didn’t feel like I was at museum, nor did I feel I was merely looking at a painting. I was seeing an entire unique world.


There’s very little dialogue and the film goes through long stretches without it. The film, like The Tree of Life, is all about beautiful images. Director and co-cinematographer Lech Majewski takes a “blank canvas” - the mountain, the villages, the windmill, and the valleys – and “fills” them in with the characters and their stories.


Cinematographers Majewski and Adam Sikora employ a liberal use of the wide-angle lens to expand the scope of that canvas. The lens magnifies the individual settings within the painting, giving us a breathtaking view from the top of the windmill, the large expansive field that it surveys, and the villages, which look tiny on the painting but are small towns within it. Because of the large depth of field resulting from the wide-angle lens, we don’t get the sense that there’s a wooden frame constricting the events, characters, and images. It feels free and liberating.


I do have one gripe about The Mill and the Cross. It’s not a major one, and perhaps I’m being a bit picky, but I feel I must share it. I remember learning about the famous painting The Treachery of Images by the Belgian artist René Magritte. The painting is of a pipe and below it says, in French, “This is not a pipe.” Later, I read a book about Magritte in which he said it isn’t a pipe but an image of a pipe. Ever since I read that, I look at the painting the same way one looks at an illusion after a magician reveals the trick.


Why did screenwriters Michael Francis Gibson and Majewski feel the need to have Bruegel explain the symbolisms contained in the painting? Didn’t they realize that sometimes it’s better to let people come up with their own interpretations rather than explaining the meanings of their works of art? Granted, the metaphor wasn’t all that subtle, but the dialogue is so clunky and obvious in its exposition that with each word spoken, it threatened the integrity of the work.


The Mill and the Cross did make me think about the possibilities of merging painting and film. I wonder what it would be like to see the same treatment afforded the diners in Ralph Goings’ photorealist paintings or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? It’s movies like The Mill and the Cross that remind us that despite the overabundance of sequels, remakes, and adaptations, there are many story and filmmaking techniques waiting to be discovered.


The Mill and the Cross is now playing at the Landmark Ken Cinema.


A Kino Lorber release. Director: Lech Majewski. Screenplay: Michael Francis Gibson and Lech Majewski, inspired by the book “The Mill and the Cross” by Michael Francis Gibson. Cinematography: Lech Majewski and Adam Sikora. Cast: Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling, and Michael York. 95 minutes. Unrated.


Brian Lafferty can be reached at brian@eastcountymagazine.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.

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