"So this could be a group of saints, returning from the past to mourn the present state of Flanders."
What would it be like, you might wonder, to see a painting as an artist imagined it, to steal into its world, examine its blots and colours and idiosyncrasies and irregularities, and exhume the breath of those inhabiting its great canvas?
What would it be like to seep into its folds, to watch it come to life, to view its creator as he sketches out its shape-in-embryo, chooses the axis, the crux of the focal point and weaves the action around and around that pinnacle like the web of a spider?
The Mill and the Cross is rather like revelatory examination of a work. The film angle never strays from straight on, the viewer is never given any perspective they would not have looking straight on from the canvas. No fancy, angled-camera work here, rather an exposition.
It begins as Bruegel discusses the inspiration for his next work with his patron. They weave amidst a flock of still characters, Bruegel conniving slight touches: the re-positioning of a hem, the flounce of a skirt of fabric. From there, the camera moves out and we are left with the opening shot. That of the great 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary
It is an examination of the political turmoil, the occupation of Flanders under the Spanish, the barbaric persecution of the protestants in a Catholic-dominated land. But it speaks beyond its specific circumstance, entreating viewers to ponder the barbaric and judgment in their own times, humanity's cruelty to one another and the moments of grace that can intercede to infiltrate meaning to the meaningless and hope to the hopeless.
The plot is an interlacing of moments, of scenes, of tableaux: beginning from the first action where we see two men chopping down a tree in the forest. The Christian symbolism here is not just overt, it is seeped in every crevice of the work. More still, it unfolds into a re-creation of the Crucifixion, as seen by the eyes of an artist in an occupied land.
"In our land we're reduced to beggary. If only time could be stayed. If it could only be brought to a stop. If only we could wrestle this senseless moment to the ground, clearly speak its name to its face and break its power....." says Bruegel's patron at one point. And brutality is rampant: a young man is severed from his wife, beaten and hoisted on a pole, a woman is buried alive. We are never to know what their crimes were. We are only to know that Spanish persecution in the name of Christ is subjucating tyranny in the same way it did at the time the Romans persecuted our Lord.
There is little speaking, merely figures who move listlessly and grounded throughout the visual scope of Bruegel's imagination. What is said is sparse; but lovely all the same ...almost Shakespearian...certainly poetic. Especially Mary's internal dialogue. Yes, Mary, Simon, Judas and Peter are all present in this re-working of the final days of Christ's life.
Yet, interwoven more greatly are symbols that divine Christ long after his execution, speaking clearly to those who are familiar not only with His influence but the entirety of the Tale told: a lamb is wrested from the back of a stone cottage, the millers make bread. The colour of the Spanish tunics is red: the otherwise muted colour of the landscape drawing back so that the focal point is on the colour of blood.
Christ is in all.
The Great Miller acts as God watching the action below and Bruegel, as artist, acts as God ---able to stop time and meander and manipulate the action, express it, capture it for all the world to see and learn from. For just as Bruegel lifts his hand to stop the motion affront him ( the way to Calvary) so the omniscient miller from his post on high raises his hand to stop the grinding wheel. Ever think of how a windmill, when caught in a certain position in its ongoing wheel takes the shape of a cross? Here, a moment of intersection against a looming sky makes for an ethereal and equally eerie symbol.
Judas hangs himself as Bruegel picks up scattered sketches
The storm rises and the rooster crows, the mill continues turning
You can see God in everything...you can see God in Bruegel ----though, like the inspiration, Christ and His moment of sacrifice is lost in the carousel of commotion. Nonetheless, though overlooked in the massive span of action and populous, He is there all the same, turning the wheels in motion, redeeming all at once. "All these great events go right unnoticed by the crowd", Bruegel says, thinking of the moment when the perspective shifts and the throng watches Simon break to carry the cross for Jesus
A landscape sprung to life from the crevices and caches and catches of oil work and matted and imagined in vivid life
Characters in tableaux: lusty, ordinary, tortured, frail.... humanity on parade.
Artists' renderings of life are beautiful and yet the seed that roots this beauty is borne, here, of tribulation; but not without a powerful symbol of redemption and not without a working of Grace.
Note: this is a relatively violent movie though rated 14 A.