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Film Review

The Mill and the Cross

Renaissance paintings are fascinating and seem to be from another world. There is a distinct difference between the Renaissance art of Northern Europe and Italy. It is as if climate itself affected artistic sensibilities. Northern artists seemed to be less influenced by classicism, and more by clear, direct observation. Portraits tend to be highly detailed and not generic, often with substantial landscapes in the background. Genre scenes, almost unheard of in 16th century Italy, are common. And northern artists began using oil paint, which made their work seem more vivid than the tempera and frescos of the south.

Pieter Breugel the Elder (1525-1569), one of the great artists of the Renaissance, lived and worked in Flanders. He was very productive, but only 45 of his paintings survive. He is best known for his genre scenes, often paintings of peasants life, such as weddings, play, and work. Many of these complex paintings have scores of people depicted in candid and realistic activities. The detail is astonishing, and reveals much about daily life. He was known for dressing up as a peasant to mingle with the crowds to observe peasant life. Unlike many Renaissance artists, he did relatively few religious paintings. Some of his paintings seem highly influenced by Hieronymus Bosch, such as his "Triumph of Death". Bruegels' paintings are highly distinctive and easily recognized. Few are in America, most now hang in European museums.

One of his paintings, "The Procession to Calvary", is a panorama showing the procession with Christ carrying the cross, making his way to Calvary, where he is to be crucified. Hundreds of people are depicted, some march in the procession, some watch, but most take no notice of an event that will change history. Breugel painted this in 1564, when the Spanish were occupying Flanders. The Spanish were cruel, meting out arbitrary harsh punishment, determined to stamp out the heresy of Protestantism. With this already rich material, Lech Majewski, a Polish director, has made a marvelous film about the making of Bruegel's painting. "The Mill and the Cross" opens with an older couple waking up, within their mill. The camera scans a maze of huge timbers and oversized gears, like a Piranesi in wood rather than stone. A young hand is awakened to trim the sails of the mill blades. He climbs a long winding wooden staircase which opens onto the deck, where he trims the sails of the mill blades. The mill itself is located on the top of a tall rock spire, overlooking the plain and Calvary. The miller impassively watches the proceedings below, and at one point, raises his hand to stop the wind and all action below. The miller represents God, overlooking his handwork, who does not intervene in the events below. Bruegel has hired hundreds of people to portray themselves, against a huge painted landscape backdrop. Yet the action is independent of Bruegel.

Bruegel draws many sketches, and discusses his proposed painting with a well dressed man, probably mayor of the town. This man appears to be Bruegel's patron, and the artist discusses the arrangement of the painting and the significance of many aspects of the painting. Christ, for instance, is barely shown, with most attention on Simon, who has been forced by the Roman soldiers to help Christ carry the cross. As in the painting, the soldiers are dressed in red tunics, and represent the hated Spanish militia. They kill a peasant, perhaps for heresy, in a particularly cruel fashion. The mayor talks with his wife in their house, as he watches the soldiers ride by, and condemns their oppression. Other vignettes of daily life are shown, including the artist's many children waking up and playing. Another peasant cuddles with his wife, and goes out to a sad fate. Animals wonder in and out of houses and scenes. Majewski really creates the sense of being in Flanders in the 16th century. This is a unconventional film, and not for everyone. There is very little dialogue, and virtually no story per se, but every scene is beautiful, many like Bruegels' paintings. The music is enchanting, and probably period. It was filmed in at least four countries, including Poland and Austria. This is a rich, complex film that is difficult to describe, but "The Mill and the Cross" is really an art history lesson, while portraying the creative process. But definitely not dull. Running time is only 91 minutes. I was enchanted by this truly gorgeous film, and it made Bruegels come alive, in every sense. No one who sees this film will ever forget Bruegel's painting. Has been playing at the Embarcadero for two weeks, so may move to a smaller theater next weekend.

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