The Mill and the Cross (Cut Cinema)

I was enthralled throughout. The violence, no doubt viscerally focused, but the whole tapestry tableau of the paintings characters going about their mundane life, captivated. We got to know them through the film: the man with red stripped tights, and the pedlar, and coblar. God knows what was going on, except the re-inactment of the Road to Calvery, the Bruegal painting on which the film was based.

Directed by the Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, in 2011, it was acclaimed at Sundance.

The mill in the title, is where the film starts. Right at the top of the pinnacle hill. How did the grain get hauled up there I wondered, until the metaphor was explained in one of the rare moments of speech: the miller was a stand in for God, grinding the bread of life, and all the destiny from above.

Not much plot, rather the daily lives: views through door ways. Faces. Darkness and light. Children’s laughter. And often harsh casual deaths: a woman buried alive, a man randomly rounded up by horseman, whipped, lashed to a wheel then, hopefully dead, eaten by ravens. Oh the brutal life of 16th-century Antwerp.

The mounted soldiers in red were not Romans persecuting Jews, but Spanish Ca­th­olics persecuting the Protestants of Flanders. I’d forgotten about that. At the time, painted allegory spoke in terms its audience would understand. Here Christ is carrying his cross through another land subjugated by outsiders for sectarian reasons.

We might easily miss the figure of Christ among the 500 in the vast landscape. Some rare dialogue points to this  ‘It is not Christ but Simon that everyone looks at.’ It is a a reminder of Bruegel’s famous painting “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” with the man ploughing the field in the foreground oblivious of the drama behind him: ‘In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster as Auden says.  Extraordinary events take place surrounded by ordinary ones. And that is its essence. The extraordinary in the mundane.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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