Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross (2011) is unique in that it is not “based” (in the loose way the word tends to be used these days) on Pieter Bruegel’s painting, The Procession to Calvary. Rather, the Polish film invites us to step inside this great work of art at the guidance of the mind of its artist (or, at least, one critic’s assessment of that artist). The painting’s images come to life as Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) is sketching them, explaining the “web” he is weaving. And at the heart of his web, he tells us, is “our Savior… being ground like grain mercilessly.” What sets apart Bruegel’s depiction of Christ’s crucifixion is that it’s set in the middle of 16th century Flanders under ferocious Spanish occupation. The suffering Christ is contrasted with intense religious persecution, and also brought to life in the middle of the mundane. Bruegel is building his web, hoping to catch the viewer’s eye, because “world-changing events go unnoticed.”
Like any great work of art, Bruegel’s painting is thematically multi-layered. We’re treated to two contrasting ways of living during the Flanders occupation. The townspeople — peasants, tradesmen, clerics, and countless others — are shown going about their daily tasks and play, cultivating and enjoying the small things in life. Yet, it’s not long before the “red tunics” — Spanish police for Philip II — come hunting for a Protestant heretic that they can brutally execute. Tellingly, it is these same red tunic policemen persecuting for the sake of religious power who lead Christ to Golgotha in the center of Bruegel’s painting. We have a hint, then, of the process that leads to the Cross, but what of the Mill?
Set high above this procession is the Miller and his mill “grinding the bread of life.” It’s a representation of God the Father that is well worth contemplation. If Majewski’s film has a comparable theme to Of Gods and Men in its undermining of religious persecution with a suffering Christ, then you might also consider its brief consideration of theodicy that is not dissimilar from some of the themes in The Tree of Life. Except, in Majewski’s film, the question of the presence of suffering is asked by Mary on behalf of her son, Jesus. We are told that she is “utterly destroyed” that the child who gave her “fullness and joy is taken away.” But, upon seeing the Miller’s reaction during and just after the Crucifixion, we can see that Mary is not alone in her hurt.
Seemingly self-aware of what’s going on in the world of the painting that she inhabits, Mary wonders hopefully at her Son’s purpose: “He was a threat to every dangerous fool, whose concern is neither God nor man, but with his own miserable certainties and power.” It’s the kind of realization that sparks a glint of hope, purpose, and contentment in the face of great anguish.
You may not have heard of the film that rounded out Christianity Today’s “Critic’s Choice” list, but it’s a film that needs to be received. The Mill and the Cross is one of the most underappreciated films of the year, and it’s now available to watch instantly on Netflix. After finally getting the chance to see this wonderful work of art, the only regret I have is that I was unable to see it on a big screen; it has some of the most beautiful, captivating imagery that I can remember seeing.
Majewski’s film is a testament to great art, to the artist as weaver and the Artist as Master Weaver. Near the end of the film, when Christ is almost to Golgotha, the Miller intervenes at the moment when Bruegel is challenged to a degree. His cohort looks on at the “violation and humiliation of charity,” wishing to “wrestle the senseless moment” and “clearly speak its name to its face.” Then, he questions whether Bruegel can “express this.” How can he? By the Miller’s intervention (interesting in itself), we stop to look more closely. Our eyes are opened (by both the artist and the Miller seemingly identified with him as Artist) to see what goes unnoticed. We need more than direct expressions to wrestle with the senseless; we need the wonders of art to grab at some of the mysteries before us just enough to restore our senses.
It’s a striking reminder that life’s web may seem tangled in the limited human foresight of the moment-to-moment, but if we look closely enough, we can see hints of a beautiful tapestry being woven among the everyday with the everyman — and even in the midst of Golgotha. Although mysterious and seemingly distant, the Miller is at work, grinding the bread of life. But who will notice?