Every Execution has its history.
Computer generated special effects have come a long way in the last ten years, moving closer and closer to a fantasy-based realism unlike anything so far presented on screen. This is all well and good, and realist-minded film theorists have argued for a fidelity to life-like artistic representation since the advent of cinema, but I feel a downside also exists. That downside comes in the form of that spectacle’s dwindling ability to awe its audience and the audience loses its ability to imagine, to stretch the limits of belief. Therefore it’s refreshing to see, on occasion, a film utilizing CGI technology in order to trigger an audience’s imagination in a way that allows them to interpret images, to fill in gaps.
Such a film is Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross and my approach to art history will never be the same after this. It invites the viewer to literally enter the mind of Flemish master Pieter Bruegel and glean the deeper meaning of his 1564 painting “The Way to Calvary.” A first that we can only hope sets a precedent, Majewski uses Bruegel’s preparatory drawings, computer generated blue-screen compositing, 3D imaging, a huge painted backdrop as well as on location shooting to invite the viewer into the craggy landscape where all the rituals of daily life unfold. What you’ll learn is that against the backdrop of the brutal Spanish Inquisition, Breugel had to be clever and he imbedded his work with a series of symbols that tell a compelling crucifixion story. There are more than 500 figures in the panoramic painting, including an array of villagers at different stations in life and the red-caped invading horsemen who butchered and then suspended them on huge wheels for all to see. Rutger Hauer plays a Breugel who imparts wisdom about life and art that makes us hunger for more. Charlotte Rampling delivers a Virgin Mary whose suffering is palpable. The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson’s novel bearing the same name.
The film’s plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent; Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer, sketches out and paints The Way to Calvary while explaining it to his patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck, played by Michael York. The film’s particular genius lies not in this simple plot, but in how it is visually presented. The painting itself surrounds Bruegel, with the figures he details living and breathing in the space around him, moving beings occupying a CGI constructed background that captures the tones and depth of Bruegel’s brushstrokes. Llech Majewskiallows the viewer to actually live inside Pieter Bruegel’s bustling Flanders landscape as he creates his 1564 masterpiece The Way to Calvary. Bruegel wields the power to freeze his figures, to isolate certain elements while others move on undisturbed, manipulating the fragments of his work to his liking. The result is not, as so many CGI worlds are, a reality dependent on fantasy, but rather a fantasy dependent on reality. Bruegel’s world and his painting are very much real, but Majewski’s film presents them in a way that is more than real, that is surreal.
Now, I will say viewing this film takes a certain amount of patience, and may not be for everyone. In most films, CGI is synonymous with a certain level of action that is not present in The Mill and the Cross. However, for those with an interest in art history, unconventional narrative, or simply something outside standard cinematic fare, The Mill and the Cross not only pays off, but stands up to multiple viewings as well.