Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross,” one of the most beautifully lit films ever made, takes place almost entirely within what appears to be a Bruegel painting. It teems with people engaged in the bustle of life, but the background feels flat and decorative, like a theatrical scrim that suggests in almost cartoon fashion mountains and sky, or the postage-stamp world seen through the window in a Renaissance portrait. There is some strange but compelling trickery in all this, with horsemen and tiny human figures moving about with three-dimensional verisimilitude in a strikingly two-dimensional space. The folds in clothing are also seen as if painted, and light rakes over the surface of things, as if coming from a single, unseen window or candle just outside the camera’s view.
The film is inspired by, and enacts in an imaginative way, the events of Bruegel’s 1564 “The Procession to Calvary,” in which Mary is seen weeping in the foreground as a tiny figure of Christ carries his cross in a landscape dominated by a giant mill, perched atop a craggy rock outcropping. Majewski fleshes out the lives of Bruegel’s anonymous characters and presents the image as an explicit criticism of the Spanish and Catholic domination of Flanders. Bruegel himself appears, as does an anonymous Christ-like figure who is never clearly a contemporary Flemish analog for Christ, or the savior himself.
I’ve written about Majewski’s films before, and I think he is one of the great cinema artists working today, though sadly little known beyond art-house circles. When I previewed a 2007 National Gallery of Art retrospective of his work, I was particularly struck by the ambiguity of his relationship to Catholicism.
He explores the tension between a blood-soaked Catholicism and a personal, often folk-inflected spirituality. He indulges an obsession with the medieval, the sense that the past is just one scrape of the knife below the most recent paint on the canvas. And throughout his films, the great categories of our existence — the public and private, the personal and political, the natural world and the man-made one — are not bounded at all, but constantly dissolve into one another.
With this latest film, the ambiguity deepens. The central drama of the crucifixion is depicted with harrowing literalism, yet unlike Mel Gibson’s obsessive and sadistic treatment in “The Passion of the Christ,” the religious murder of the young Christ or Christ-like figure in Majewski’s film is only part of the drama. On all sides, and before and after the crucifixion, life goes on, filled with ribaldry, sex and small family dramas. And when it is over, when the young man’s body has been taken from the cross and deposited in a cave-like tomb (only his dirty feet can be seen), it’s not clear if any thing in the world has changed. His mother, the Mary figure, wonders aloud if it was all for naught, if there was any meaning, if perhaps her son was just killed for nothing at all. Life, in all its misery and bustle, continues unabated.
The film won’t say if this about the impotence of religion or not. And that is what I found the most wonderful, horrible, and moving part of it. This is a film for people steeped in but not necessarily devoted to Christian culture. By framing the story within Bruegel’s painting, it allows the possibility that this is a film that serves art, rather than religion. It may well be deeply critical of Christianity (I read it that way). But the film maker never shows his hand.
The ambiguity allows those who doubt, and perhaps find the whole story deeply offensive on a rational basis, to approach its emotional aspects in new and intimate ways.
It is wonderful Lenten fare, like listening to the St. John Passion.