The Mill and the Cross, a film by Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski, is a 95-minute look at Pieter Bruegel's 16th-century painting "The Way to Calvary," telling the story of Christ's passion with grit and grime. Bruegel's painting, which sets Christ's passion in the artist's Flanders under brutal Spanish rule, contains hundreds of characters, and the film brings several of them to life: a couple taking a calf to market, children fighting, woodsmen cutting down trees for executioners' use.
Life is bitter and full of suffering, and the film (not rated) does no sugarcoating, showing moments of nudity and gruesome violence. The Spanish overlords, grabbing people at random, bury a woman alive and tie a man to a wheel atop a "tree of death," where crows pick out his eyes. On a crag above it all is "the great miller of heaven," as Bruegel (as a character in the film portrayed by Rutger Hauer) calls God, running a mill that grinds grain.
The film is about acute suffering, but beauty appears in the backdrops, which are real landscapes in eastern Europe and New Zealand blended seamlessly with moving paintings. Jesus is in the center of Bruegel's painting, fallen under the cross and lost in the crowd of peasants and soldiers. "They all look at Simon," who is helping to carry the cross, "not at the Savior," Bruegel says. "All these world-changing events go quite unnoticed by the crowd." Like Bruegel, Majewski hides Jesus, who doesn't appear until at least halfway through the film, and we never see His face.
"Our Savior is being ground like grain, mercilessly," Bruegel says as he watches Christ's suffering unfold. The miller of heaven isn't without compassion-when Jesus dies on the cross, the miller stands in the mill, tears in his eyes, a shadow passing over his face. Slow and inscrutable at times, this film is a piece of art itself, not a "movie," and it's packed with symbolism. The filmmaker gives a hint of hope at the close, as the painter's wife kneads dough, making bread out of the ground grain.