Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bruegel on film, an interface of art, history, and cinema

One of the most unusual and beautiful films in many years, THE MILL AND THE CROSS (2011)chronicles the great 16th century Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder as he paints THE WAY TO CALVARY, 1564. Lech Majewski, a Polish director "paints" his tribute to the master painter by attempting to compose the painting on film. Many shots show landscapes, characters, 16th century country life lifted from Bruegel's many canvases. We look into the distance and see Bruegel's aquamarine sky with strange rock formations; they are the backdrops for the action, which apes the painting itself.

The story of THE WAY TO CALVARY is nominally the crucifixion story, but that is only the beginning. The viewer has to look deeply into the painting to find the event itself and as he scans the landscape he sees the Pieta (Mary's sorrow), the via dolourosa with Christ carrying the cross, children playing, Spanish soldiers in red, a whole world of Flemish life serving as history and as allegory. This is the technique Bruegel is famous for, taking an important moment in biblical history or myth and scaling it down to fit into the everyday goings on of Flemish life. See, for example, his masterpiece THE FALL OF ICARUS where the plowman keeps plowing, the ship keeps sailing by, and no one notices the splash of a young man who has fallen from the sky. It's this sense of detail that the director brings to THE WAY TO CALVARY, a film that deserves a careful watching. You will be rewarded.

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