The word "film" seems inadequate to describe Lech Majewski's The Mill and The Cross, a mesmerizingly layered rendering of the creation of Pieter Bruegel's iconic The Way to Calvary. The painting itself is imposingly dizzying—a depiction of the crucifixion containing over 500 figures and, like the film, set during the painter's lifetime, when Spain ruled Flanders with an iron fist. From its arresting opening image of Bruegel (played by another legend, Rutger Hauer) wandering inside his masterpiece-in-progress, to Majewski's ingenious use of subtle movement in both foreground and background planes and absolute stillness in the middle one, The Mill and The Cross is less costume drama and more time capsule come to life. It's an art installation captured by painstaking cinematography.
In this way, The Mill and The Cross, scripted by Majewski and the author of the titular book, art critic Michael Francis Gibson, has more in common with the type of work a mixed-media artist such as Vik Muniz—who makes pieces that stand alone and then photographs them, building upon the original artwork—might dream up. Each scene is rendered like a brushstroke, and is accompanied by a haunting sound design that surreptitiously sucks you in. Majewski creates this multifaceted moving image by layering together shots of his actors (Charlotte Rampling, as the Virgin Mary, and Michael York, as Bruegel's patron, round out the heavyweight cast) in front of a blue screen; landscape footage from Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and New Zealand; and, amazingly enough, a 2D backdrop of The Way to Calvary painted by the director himself.
Every bit as visceral an experience as Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and with a lead actor whose face radiates the same eternal quality as that of the late Klaus Kinski, The Mill and The Cross also feels a lot like live theater. And the director succeeds so well in saturating his images with meaning that when the barebones dialogue is heard it seems frustratingly stale and superfluous. (One wonders why Majewski didn't just jettison words altogether.) The series of tableaus are sometimes lighthearted, at other times gruesome (crows feast on the eyeballs of one unfortunate victim of the thuggish Spaniards), but never over-the-top hysterical. Majewski, much like his fellow countryman Roman Polanski, is a cool outsider at heart, preferring to peer through doorways in order spy on daily life, on all its mundane activities and playful bawdiness. With Hauer's Bruegel serving as the director's stand-in, The Mill and The Cross ultimately becomes an intoxicating invention, as timeless and innovative as the wooden windmill.