Art appreciation and CGI combine to form The Mill & the Cross, an immersive film-experience that brings to life the world of a 16th century painting—in other words, the coolest idea for a maximalist art film since Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3-D. The subject is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting "The Way to Calvary." Conceived and set in 1564 Flanders, the piece clogs some 500 figures into a landscape; hidden among the detritus, Where’s Waldo?-style, is religious persecution and the crucifixion of Christ.
Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski wills it into being, its denizens turned into flesh and blood actors. The film is a series of annotations, but told entirely through action; even the very occasional monologues are more there for decoration than exposition. The steady procession of brief snapshots of quiet mundanity features workers working, kids playing, eccentrics trying out stilts. There’s little decipherable chatter, the sound design devoted to papers rustling in wind, the creak of wood, hammer on metal and musical doodles.
The pastoral loveliness is occasionally interrupted by Spanish soldiers emerging to kick the shit out of a heretic, then strap his corpse atop a pole to be food for crows. Such violence becomes increasingly prevalent in the second half, and this narrativeless film gradually takes on a slightly more concrete shape. Milling about the proceedings is Bruegel himself (Rutger Hauer, rocking a grave gravitas), observing the non-action, prepping for the canvas that we are in effect viewing in cinema form. The “reality” of the movie bends to his will, with the characters holding fort alternately in nature and, courtesy of CGI, the painting itself, an effect borrowed from Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke.
The Mill & the Cross works best when “silent,” faltering whenever its name cast (also including Charlotte Rampling and Michael York—the casting appears to have been performed randomly) plows through stiffly solemn soliloquies. But such faults are infrequent enough not to ruin a spell that, along with Peter Greenaway’s charming Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, makes a strong argument that art history, at least when in the form of cinema, can be a blast.