Sundance Film: The Mill and The Cross

February 2, 2011 : 9:56 pm | by James Tobey

Polish director Lech Machewski has taken an entirely unique approach to animating Pieter Bruegel’s 1564 masterpiece The Procession To Cavalry. The Mill and The Cross, based on Bruegel’s essay of the same name, transposes the jaw-dropping, jagged features Bruegel so admired during a trip to Italy with the low flatlands of his home in Belgium through meticulous use of digital editing. Shot in New Zealand, the film merges the vibrancy of the scenic New Zealand landscape with Bruegel’s portrayal of 15th century Belgium in The Procession To Cavalry.

15th Century Belgium, a protestant stronghold recently overtaken by the devoutly catholic Spain, was an era of sorrowful transition-those who endorsed the dominant religion of their own culture were chastised and treated as heretics. One gets a sense of this overbearing colonial control through the abruptness of the Spanish Inquisition’s presence in Antwerp-the ‘red tunics’ seem to vanish after undertaking gruesome crucifixions, just as quickly as they appeared. Attempting to maintain their customs in the presence of different cultural heritages, The Inquisition is extraneous and ruthlessly brutal. The universality of the Spanish cavalry is clear in the root of their struggle-the Spanish are mirrored in every dispute about customary awareness spanning history. They exemplify the role of the Romans to the teachings of Jesus Christ, or the Athenian city-state to Socrates; their only power to squelch reform lies in the excessive force they unflinchingly enact on the townspeople of Antwerp.

The film begins with Pieter Bruegel, played by Rutger Hauer, sketching dozens of totally still townspeople whose deliberate posture, facial gestures and arrangement gives one a sense of Bruegel’s incredible intricacy. Far more than capturing the immediacy of the townspeople’s existence, Bruegel’s paintings are deeply symbolic and sociological-this is expressed through his conversation with Michael York’s character, in which Bruegel explains that the mill’s exaggeration in reference to the rest of the painting. Wielding power over the village’s sustainment, the miller is the true lifeblood of Antwerp and it’s essential provider. For this reason, Bruegel portrays the mill’s form as god-like and superior, deifying the symbol of the mill’s creation in order to provide fascinatingly realistic insight into the inner workings of 15th century society.

The poignant beauty of the film’s incredible back-drop, set in 15th century Antwerp, is that it’s exaggerated form accurately reflects the grand efforts of Renaissance painters such as Bruegel. During the Renaissance era, paintings encapsulated a statement about the world itself in their works-instead of introducing multiple perspectives on the scenes they interpreted, their art reflected ideal forms that were seen as inherent features of reality.

A delightfully original take on art’s role in shaping our understanding of historical narratives, Machewski reinvents the Renaissance style of Bruegel in much the same way that Renaissance painters sought to refine the art of the Classical period. The shimmering and metaphorical shots draw the viewer’s eyes to the oppression so often overlooked during the time of these martyrs.

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