“The Mill and the Cross” offers a kind of what-led-to-all-this study of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting, “The Procession to Calvary.” It’s not my favorite Bruegel painting, but a film on any Bruegel is, I figured, entirely worth watching. I watched it last night with a mixture of warm appreciation and cool puzzlement. If you’re like me, Bruegel’s paintings have a haunting and captivating effect. They capture everyday life and culture so long ago with such richness and detail. So I couldn’t resist ordering this film from Netflix when I saw it there. Yet, and truth be told, I didn’t know quite enough Flemish history to make the film fully understandable. So this morning, after the fact, I turned to Wikipedia for a quick historical briefing. I should have done so before sitting down to watch it — but, hey, who knew?
I also mentioned to my brother that I’d ordered the film — with that mention’s implied recommendation. Now, though, I’m not so sure this film is for everybody. For one thing, it contains more than a little brutality. Even beyond the brutality, contemporary culture was a little rough around the edges — an earthy texture the film also faithfully depicts. For another, there is very little dialog in the film, which instead offers a kind of wordless moving mural of the circumstances and events leading to the great assemblage of persons at a public crucifixion that Bruegel so painstakingly painted. It’s arguably almost a silent film. At the same time, there is so much that can be harvested from watching this film. Its detailed rendering of mid-16th-century life, costumes, habits, and times was, alone, worth the price of admission.
For me, the most moving sequence came at the very end. The setting shifts to a solemn art museum, where “The Procession to Calvary” is hanging on the wall. The camera backs up and pans right, so that the painting now shares the screen with a view of a second, empty room in the gallery. Suddenly, you realize what the film has given you. What was once a silent, even mute, picture in a hollow museum has now taken on a life, a collection of stories, a feel, and a deeper cargo of meanings. Indeed, and not surprisingly, I don’t look at the painting in at all the same way now that I’ve watched the film. Many of its elements now have stories and meanings they of course didn’t have before.
So, yes, I recommend it. Even strongly. But first, maybe, take a look at Bruegel’s Wikipedia page and the Wikipedia page on “The Procession to Calvary.” These will, I’m pretty certain, clear away some of the puzzlement I felt and make watching the film considerably more rewarding.