Sunday, September 11, 2011

Special effects for art lovers: Majewski's THE MILL AND THE CROSS at Film Forum

TrustMovies (before there was a TrustMovies blog) once referred to filmmaker Lech Majewski as "one of the worst little-seen filmmakers in the world" and "pompous, pretentious and pedestrian." He came to that judgment having seen two of Majewski's movies -- The Garden of Earthly Delights and The Gospel According to Harry -- and posted reviews of same at Greencine (click the title links then scroll down to the reviews). Three years later, thanks to the combination of distributor Kino Lorber and the theatrical venue of Film Forum, he has just seen Majewski's latest opus, and -- what a difference!

Perhaps the biggest lesson TM has learned here is not to make quite such all-inclusive judg-ments until one has seen much more of a filmmaker's work. While he stands by his assess-ment of those two earlier films, he finds THE MILL AND THE CROSS, the latest work from this filmmaker, shown at right, something else entirely. Reminiscent at times of Peter Greenaway's Nightwatching and Rembrandt's J'Accuse, the film takes on an art masterwork, in this case Pieter Bruegel's The Way to Calvary, and builds an entire movie around it.  Majewski also, one suspects, was blessed with a much larger budget for this film, which includes a "name" cast and some truly mammoth special effects (well, mammoth for folk who enjoy fine art).

The most spectacular of these effects involves some new CG technology and 3D effects (no, you won't need special glasses) that weave layer after layer of perspective to blend Bruegel's painting with actors in vintage costume, space, landscape and atmospheric phenomena.  There will be times when your breath is taken away by the sheer "What's real and what's not? What's painting and what's people?" force of the visuals on display.

The movie also captures a remarkable sense of time and place -- Flanders in 1564 -- under Spanish occupation (this came as news to me, who evidently does not know his history all that well). Majewski sees this as a period of easy and obvious sexuality and freedom, ground down under the boot of the Spanish soldiers. One scene in particular of a young couple torn apart by these Spaniards-in-red is shocking, grueling and truly horrible in its random, unreasonable cruelty.

The use of animals during this time, living with them in ways that we today -- even farmers, I suspect -- could hardly imagine, is brought to interesting life, as well, and as the film moves on, it becomes a kind of Passion Play put on by the Flemish under the yoke of the Spanish.

Narration, what little there be, is provided by Michael York, left, who doubles as Bruegel's patron. The artist is portrayed by Rutger Hauer (below), and Charlotte Rampling (at bottom) plays a woman of the town whom the artist uses as the Virgin Mary (that's a switch for Ms Rampling!). All three make fine visual statements, with their by now iconic faces used quite well. (York's is a bit more bloated and aged than we remember, but that sometimes happens when you don't see an actor for a few years.)

But then there is that problematic dialog. Literally nothing these characters say to each other (or to the screen, to us) is much worth hearing. In fact, it is very nearly lame. (The screenplay, by Majewski and Michael Francis Gibson, is based on Gibson's book of the same title.) The movie, for all its fabulous and sumptuous artistic sense, does not go anywhere. It is a wonderful visual experiment that, for quite a length of time, has your eyes wide open and your mouth agape. But eventually and unfortunately it leaves your brain agape, too.

The Mill and the Cross (2010, 91 minutes) opens this Wednesday, September 14, at Film Forum. in New York and on September 30 in Los Angeles at Landmark's Nuart Theater.  Click here for FF screening times and here (then scroll down) to see a listing of other playdates, cities and theaters around the country in the weeks and months to come.

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