How do you adapt a painting into a film? The question is not as preposterous as it might seem at first. Starting with “The Procession to Calvary” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross attempts to translate the conventions and expectations of painting into cinema. It is not about “The Procession to Calvary;” it is an attempt to create a cinematic equivalent in the same the way that filmmakers shape novels into films. In doing so, at least one consequence is to foreground the question of adaptation generally.
For why is it is any more realistic to “adapt” a novel or play? To reply that the latter are narrative forms, and therefore more related to film than painting, is not only a circular argument (film is narrative, therefore narrative is appropriate for film). It ignores the similarities between film and painting resulting from both being visual media. Besides, much realistic painting itself includes a narrative component.
While Majewski does take off from the “story” in Brueghel’s painting, however, he does not dramatize events. He treats the painting first and foremost as an image, a representation, derived by Brueghel (Rutger Hauer) from the people and events around him. And just as Brueghel uses his time and tools to visualize the Passion, Majewski reflexively uses the technologies at his command to bring Brueghel’s creative process to life.
The Mill is nonetheless very far removed from a traditional biopic, in which events in the artist’s life speciously “inspire” him or her to create. The people and actions around Brueghel are simply there, not objects of dramatic convenience. The most enjoyable sequences in the film feature Brueghel’s family, bustling and horsing around their home, blessedly separate from narrative obligation to motivate the artist, thereby evoking a charming bedrock of routine and unforced affection from which he draws (in both senses of the word). Rather, Brueghel’s thematic intentions are conveyed with ruminative voiceover and dialogs with his banker patron, Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). The only direct relationship between Brueghel’s work and the story is voiceover from the Virgin Mary (Charlotte Rampling), a kind of imaginative speculation on her thoughts and grief at the death of Christ.
In short, there is little story and less drama in The Mill and the Cross. Majewski allows the power and saturation of each heavy, exquisite shot to create the emotional content. Only occasionally does he freeze and pose the actors like figures in the painting, producing a dual awareness of the tragedy of the Passion and the constructed nature of painting and film. The last shot, a slow camera move away from the real “Procession to Calvary” canvas in the Künsthistorisches Museum brings the thematic focus full circle, returning the camera to its function as a recording device. The Mill and the Cross is, in other words, a complex reverie on the mysteries of creativity, the power of faith and the richness of art.