One of the most gorgeous and gripping films released last year finally arrives in Miami theaters this week precariously close to its release date on home video. But The Mill and the Cross proves a must to see on the big screen, and holds its own against Melancholia and the Tree of Life, two faves among critics this year. I might dare say it is a better film than either one of those more heavily seen and praised works. Though both Melancholia and the Tree of Life are indeed great films of the year that reach for spiritual significance, the Mill and the Cross offers a commentary on man’s spirituality via a work that stays more true to the medium of cinema than either of those films.

The Mill and the Cross is stagey and quite self-aware. It knows that it is art working to convey spirituality, and for it to feel awe-inspiring with such transparency is a measure of its excellence as a movie-going experience. Director Lech Majewski is one of the more underrated and obscure masters of cinema working today, and it is tough for a Polish filmmaker, also an admired video artist, music composer, poet, novelist and stage director, to outshine the hype of Von Trier and the mystery of Malick, yet the Mill and the Cross stands tall as a testament to Majewski’s talents.

The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s book The Mill and the Cross – Peter Bruegel’s “Way to Calvary,” which examines the 1564 oil painting by the Flemish master Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Here is that painting (click for a large, hi-res image):

A simple glance at the painting reveals an undeniable narrative quality, and it’s why I have personally loved the art of the Flemish masters for many years.

When I first read about this movie, early last year, in a glowing review by Roger Ebert, I had eagerly awaited its release in theaters. Despite my high expectations, it never let down. I was often slack-jawed as I watched the film quietly unfold on a big screen during a preview screening.

The film opens in complete darkness as the sound of footsteps echo as if in a great hall. The first image revealed is a hyper-realized shot of people in costumes typical of those that populate Bruegel’s exquisitely detailed painting. From their arrangement to the tone of their props, the evocation of Bruegel is undeniable. They stand very still as Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) walks among them while scribbling in his giant sketch book during a breathtaking tracking shot that almost makes Bruegel’s speech hard to hear. At his side is Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York), a patron of Bruegel’s. The painter explains the idea behind the work to Jonghelinck, which sets up the story that is about to unfold by the actors.

The high-definition images do amazing justice to the painting that inspired them via a combination of live action and digital effects. The Mill and the Cross takes what Eric Rohmer did with the Lady and the Duke, a movie about the French Revolution and the paintings that became known as representative of that history, to a whole other level. Majewski presents intricate sets, as various characters in the painting wake for the day doing mundane tasks. The miller and his wife struggle to get out of bed while a mother gets her large pack of children up for breakfast. Spanish militia men in red coats with spears slowly emerge from the fog. Some men chop at a tree that crashes with a splintering sound and a baby breathes softly. Majewski uses sound, almost Technicolor quality of images with brilliant contrasts of light and shadow, a range of camera shots and not a single spoken word to bring this world into focus as various parts of the painting merge and become clear.

It all seems like an ordinary morning in a distant time until a horrific scene unfolds. The Spanish soldiers attack a villager without provocation. After they beat him and tie him to a the wheel of a cart attached to the edge of a freshly chopped tree trunk, they hoist the beaten man to the sky as a feast for the birds, his wife left to grieve in distraught helplessness at the base of the trunk. Then, 30 minutes into the movie, Jonghelinck breaks the silence of speech, bemoaning the invasion of the Spaniards to the land of what was then Flanders (now Belgium), and pointing out the hypocrisy of these crusading Christian thugs who carry out live passion plays, with the “heretic” citizens of Antwerp as the random stand-ins for Christ.

The experience of this film becomes something akin to the visualization of the experience of coming to understand the painting’s rich symbolism, history and the imagination and zeitgeist that spawned it. It becomes clear Jonghelinck is the conscience that can interpret the intricate design work and storytelling of Bruegel, as Majewski presents a world caught between the Dark Ages and the Age of Enlightenment. The later part of the film introduces us to Mary (Charlotte Rampling), the mother of Christ, who makes a significant appearance in the painting. With her morose, worried face she represents the collateral damage of all of those sacrificed in these passion plays, and, as Bruegel modeled her on his wife, she too offers words conscience that echo out to the righteousness of crusaders that exist to this day, as the painting continues to pass through the eons hanging in a museum.

The story is powerful and potently portrayed with mesmerizing images that never stop amazing. Majewski knows Bruegel the Elder well and utterly captures the experience of gazing at his images. With his 2004 film the Garden of Earthly Delights, the director did similar justice to another Flemish master: Hieronymus Bosch. Take a look at a large image of that:

The title refers to one of the painter’s most famous works, which comes to life in the movie via home video films of an art historian studying the piece as she approaches death by throat cancer. She and her lover stage images from the painting in an apartment they rent in Venice. The videos also jump back to a lecture with the painting projected over her face as well as videotaped samples of Bosch’s other work. The high contrast and grainy quality of the video does a miraculous job at complementing the images of Bosch’s coloring. Creatures at a fish market become almost indistinguishable from those painted by Bosch. Throughout that film, Majewski does a marvelous and subtle job of telling the story of the painting while reflecting on the value of life on earth and the idea of permanence as death looms, in effect bringing a value to art lasting beyond mortal life.

In a different, and an even more beautiful way, Majewski does the same with the Mill and the Cross. The high-definition image seems the polar opposite of the handheld, lo-fi camera work that defined the Garden of Earthly Delights. Coupled with amazing images, its patient, almost minimalist unraveling of “story” brings the mundane together with the profound in an effortless manner that makes films like the Tree of Life and Melancholia seem forced by comparison.

Hans Morgenstern

The Mill and the Cross is Unrated, runs 92 minutes and opens on Thursday, Jan. 12, in South Florida at O Cinema in North Miami, at 8 p.m.  It will then open on Friday, Jan. 13, at 6:40 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The same day, at 7 p.m., it opens in Coral Gables, at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, as part of a series of films featuring Rampling.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)