It is appropriate that Polish director Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross” is playing Saturday and Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, for two reasons: The English-language film adapts a famous painting, and in adhering to those visuals, stands as a work of art itself. It’s the very definition of “picturesque.”
The artwork in question is Pieter Bruegel’s “The Procession to Calvary,” a 16th-century oil depicting a crowd forming around Jesus Christ as he collapses from the weight of the cross. Bruegel’s masterpiece contains
hundreds of people on its canvas, and Majewski lets his camera “enter”
the painting to tell the stories of a select few — most notably,
Charlotte Rampling (“Never Let Me Go”) as the Virgin Mary and, as
Bruegel, Rutger Hauer, about as far away as he could get from his other
memorable role of this year, that of the titular “Hobo with a Shotgun.”It’s the very definition of “picturesque.”
This being 1564, however, the stories are more glimpses of the villagers’ daily doings, where the simplest things amount to points of action: climbing a staircase, fiddling with a spider’s web, chopping down a tree, kneading dough, breast-feeding a baby, kicking a heretic, crows munching on the corpse of said heretic. At least these situations look fantastic, and with so little dialogue — if any — they had better.
I assume people will be most interested in the Christ scenes, which consume roughly the last third of a surprisingly slim, 92-minute running time. Still, don’t expect Christ to be a central character of his own story; its inclusion is about the surroundings, which are supplemented by an elegiac score (composed in part by Majewski, who also co-wrote the screenplay) that is used sparingly, rather than as an emotionally manipulative crutch. In other words, the music doesn’t “sweep,” to tell your heart it’s time to be crushed.
“The Mill and the Cross” can only be recommended as a visual exercise, because a plot is nonexistent. It’s deliberately slow-moving, like the recent “Meek’s Cutoff,” but unlike that tiresome travelogue of 16th-century Westerners, this film keeps your eyes busy and entranced. If Majewski had chosen to tell this tale without mimicking Bruegel’s brushstroke style, seeing it would be pointless.