If there is a single truth which I desire and derive from cinema, it is that cinema is art. The beauty of cinema is that it captures life, captures emotion, captures ideas. In one instant, it may capture the darkest and most dire depths of humanity, and in the next moment, exalt it beyond the apex of divinity. It is a narrative of the human condition in all its facets, bringing it to life – does art not do the same? In Lech Majewski’s The Mill & the Cross, it does precisely that, bringing art to life – or does it capture life into art? This film passionately evokes the latter, weaving a seamless not-quite-narrative into a Flemish tapestry with threads of wheat, wood, and blood.

The Mill & the Cross is conceptually based on Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 panoramic painting ‘The Procession to Calvary’, a lush and fastidiously detailed depiction of Jesus Christ’s Passion under the Spanish occupation in Flanders.

While it is undoubtedly a remarkable painting, Majewski’s treatment of it transforms it into a metaphysically captivating examination of the lives of some of these figures, guided by Bruegel himself (played by Rutger Hauer, who will now forever be the artist). There are euphonious resonances from films such as Jarman’s Caravaggio and Greenaway’s Nightwatching, in that the artists’ paintings are lovingly woven into the film’s narrative, exploring the lives of its subjects. Where this film stands uniquely is its exceptionally humanist exploration of the painting. Dialogue is sparingly minimal, but speaks volumes in its intonation – expository discourse on religious freedom, spiritual loss, and political turmoil. One can envision Chaucer’s pilgrims in these characters, humble peasants that have stepped directly out of 16th century Belgium to recreate the circumstances surrounding the painting. Like Flaubertian realism, the film is unhurried and steady, following the characters as they go about their daily lives, swathe in simple, unpretentious authenticity.

Visually, it is unsurpassed. The pastoral landscape is surreally brought to life via blue screen, with the effect of washes of oil paints depicting rolling valleys and Tarkovskian forests, shaded by blankets of cloud and ominous cliffs, all overseen by the slightly ominous mill. Majewski creates tableaus of characters halted mid-scene against the rustic panorama, as Bruegel expounds his vision. The colour palette is lifted directly from the painting: fabrics in tones of earthy beige and bleached grain, violated by spurts of the bright red of the Spanish mercenaries’ tunics, like the drop of sealing wax upon the envelope.

In every sense of the word, The Mill & the Cross is an aesthetically inspired masterpiece, much like the painting on which it is based. It is as much a treatise on the love of art, as it is an allegory of human suffering. It is the exquisitely rare sort of film that leaves imprints on your retinas long after you’ve left the cinema, and remnants of contemplation in your brain long after you’ve fallen asleep.

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