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Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross blends painting and real life.
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The Mill and the Cross

Directed by Lech Majewski

Starring Rutger Hauer, Michael York, and Charlotte Rampling

Now Playing at Kendall Square Cinema

It starts with a sound and ends with a painting. Creaking. Voices. Echoing footsteps. The soft swish of fabric. Above all, darkness. When the scene opens, the camera slowly pans back and forth across an evolving painting: The Mill and the Cross is centered around Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Way to Calvary (1564), so what better way to open the film than with a tour of the painting itself?

Artistically speaking, The Mill and the Cross is a masterpiece. Majewski’s handling of Bruegel’s already masterful painting actually gave me a greater appreciation for Bruegel’s work. Before, I had (somewhat subconsciously) associated his work with lighthearted indie music (Fleet Foxes’ eponymous first album uses a detail from Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs on its cover), but the film investigates the painting in such detail that it’s difficult not to notice anything deeper.

Of course, with a film like this it is a given that you find each scene bursting with symbolism and dramatic plays on light and dark. But Majewski takes this one step further. For every realism-meets-painterly moment à la Girl With a Pearl Earring, there is an “authentic-or-invented?” moment. Many of the key scenes are actually an amalgamation of painted backdrops (in the style of Bruegel’s painting) and blue screen acting.

This blending and ambiguity comes to the forefront of the storyline just as much as it does in the cinematography. The 16th-century politics of the time blend in with biblical events. The red-caped Spanish soldiers that ride around Flanders are akin to the Roman soldiers that crucified Jesus, and their persecution of Dutch “heretics” is just as brutal. Cringe-worthy scenes, such as the one in which they strap a man to a wheel and raise it several meters into the air so that ravens can peck out his eyes, all lead up to a climactic crucifixion scene.

Perhaps the most remarkable part about this film is its lack of words. Words don’t come out of an actor’s mouth until half an hour into the film, and even then, it hardly counts as dialogue; the man seems to be speaking directly to the audience while his wife stares blankly at a book of prayer. The emphasis, then, shifts to everyday noises: the deafening sounds of a servant clomping up the stairs in his wooden shoes, the thunder (yes, thunder) of the horses’ hooves as the Spanish soldiers ride into town, the sounds of rambunctious children wrestling each other in the morning. At the center of all this is the mill — the only moment of dead silence in the film is when the mill stops turning, the wind stops roaring, and the miller looks out from his tower like the great decider of fates that he plays.

When the miller raises his hand in a godlike gesture and the mill does start up again, it’s almost disappointing. Then again, Majewski’s decision to show the resumption of everyday life (in the form of a bucolic dance scene, no less) is a necessary one. The Mill and the Cross — and, by extension, The Way to Calvary — is locked in a timelessness that we cannot understand fully, and therein lies its power.