I've long been a fan of Pieter Bruegel (the Elder)'s paintings. A print of Netherlandish Proverbs hangs on one of my walls. I don't know much about him.
The Mill and the Cross looks closely at one of Bruegel's paintings, The Way to Calvary. The film starts with various 16th century individuals going about their 16th century Flemish business. Cutting down trees. Taking care of the animals. Buying bread. Getting dressed for the day. Being tortured by the Spanish. Punching a brother in the arm. The grain mill turns.
This is all visually beautiful and about as far as can be from a traditional narrative. How do all of these disparate people and events hold together?
Luckily, Bruegel (played by Rutger "hobo" Hauer) shows up and explains it all to us neatly. The film never strays far from the structure of the painting and the painting is described and interpreted along the way. Honestly, the film works nearly perfectly as a silent film and didn't need any of the talking. All of the spoken word parts could have been intertitles. Or they could have been done away with completely.
What we learn is that everything is anchored in the Cross.
Besides the obvious spiritual aspects, the movie (following the painting) is heavily political, focusing on the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands and its heavy religious persecution of all "heretics." There are heavy-handed parallels here between these Spanish persecutors and the Sanhedrin and High Priests of the 1st century. We get a contemporaneous playing out of the Passion, complete with a token Judas character who shows up in the movie only to throw coins on a floor and then hang himself.
There is a lot of humor in the film. There's one lecherous man especially who can't stop ogling a woman though the whole earth is covered in darkness. God himself is represented by a stout miller who overlooks this localized creation. Even the crows pecking out an eye is a sort of dark humor.
I wish that y'all had been able to see it while it was playing on the big screen.
Top Five 2011 So Far
(No real surprises)
1) The Mill and the Cross
2) The Tree of Life
5) Winnie the Pooh
I'm getting really impatient to see Take Shelter!!!