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Go ahead - step inside this Flemish painting. Rutger Hauer will show you around....
Kino / 92 Minutes / 2011 / Unrated / Street Date: January 31, 2012
Viewers expecting any kind of rewarding plot device in Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross will be sorely disappointed, but does Guernica have a plot? Does the Mona Lisa? This wildly ambitious motion picture takes Bruegel's 1564 painting The Procession to Calvary and opens it up. The hundreds of characters within it are brought to cinematic life, as though Majewski and company were able to slip into an alternate universe and capture the creations of the painting in true motion.
It's fascinating - and gorgeous - concept, to be sure. Visually, the movie is enthralling, allowing the majesty of the Flemish work to quite literally come to life before our very eyes. We don't even get much in terms of character in The Mill and the Cross - Rutger Hauer shows up as the painter, and his patron (Michael York) and mother (Charlotte Rampling also have a certain degree of focus - but this doesn't seem to be of much import to Majewski. The Mill and the Cross is about the penetrating power of the visual medium, and as such, it is a fascinating portrait.
In fact, there are multiple parallels between this film and The Artist. In both movies' cases, the medium is the message - be it silent film or Flemish painting - and that isn't just a motif from which the movies are developed: It's their very essence. In The Mill and the Cross, Majewski wants us to look at our HDTVs as if they were canvases living and breathing in front of us, just as Michel Hazanavicius presents silent film as an escapist alternate history to Hollywood.
However, as is the case with both films, these bases stop being illuminating and begin coming across as shticky about twenty minutes in. There no denying The Mill and the Cross is a visual masterwork - Roger Ebert raved about the film when he first saw it - but it feels limp as a dramatic entity, a movie that seems more like an art-school experiment than an engaging overall film. It will grab curious viewers by storm - and many may succumb to its visual prowess - but even if The Mill and the Cross doesn't need a plot to be successful, it needs something that's not here.