As interesting as watching paint dry is a phrase that might ring true to many with regard to The Mill and the Cross. Story, characters, human element… they all take a back seat. It’s all about the visuals.
At first, The Mill and The Cross seemed to me like a series of paintings with moving objects that were heading nowhere. And I had intended to bring it up in a critical manner. The film evokes stillness and boredom in you. But only as it should; echoing the feelings of an artist who, bored out of his mind, taunts a helpless spider with a stick. The spider hobbles around in its dewdrop studded web but remains unwilling to abandon it. Inspiration gushes in and sets the creative juices flowing. Time stands still, the artist seizes the moment and it all flows onto paper. When he begins to see the beauty of the town, you slowly involve yourself in the film and recognize its beauty. That’s a rich payoff, the realization that all of this documentary-style spying has amounted to something meaningful.
The artist is renaissance painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The painting, populated by 500 characters, is The Procession to the Calvary created in 1564. In 2001, Art critic Michael Francis Gibson published a detailed analysis of the artwork under the title ‘The Mill and The Cross.’ Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski now brings it to the silver screen.
With large, towering sets The Mill and the Cross envelops its apathetic characters, whose hearts have been tranquilized by an unjust monarchy. People get beaten up but it doesn’t create the faintest ruckus. There’s something strange about this place and its people. It feels as though the entire town is being muffled from feeling joy by an invisible force. Its inhabitants don’t expect better. Even at the worst times, there’s something restrained about the way they express themselves.
The closing shot is of the painting, now in a museum. The film attempts to send a message to its viewers. What it is trying to say is speculative. What reached me was this- If all this suffering and injustice did any good, it was to create a work of art worthy enough of being preserved at an empty museum. When you’re gone, it is only your work that will matter. You die but your legacy lives. I’ve told you what it is about. Now watch it for the breathtaking imagery.