Contemporary art Canada

Not run of the mill

A major new film, based on a Bruegel the Elder painting, is due to open the international festival in Montreal

Rutger Hauer as Pieter Bruegel the Elder in “The Mill and the Cross”

The 30th edition of ArtFifa (International Festival of Films on Art) runs in Montreal, Canada, from 15 to 25 March. In its first year, the festival showed 50 films, from 12 countries, over five days, in one venue. This year it will show 232 films, from nearly 30 countries, in eight different venues, the largest festival of its kind in the world. It also hosts a market for films on art, offering the opportunity for distributors and bookers to meet, and deal, with film-makers and producers. According to René Rozon, the director and founder of ArtFifa, one of the most significant changes since the festival began is that “in the past, films tended to eulogise their subject, today they are more frank, direct and critical”.

While the festival largely concentrates on documentaries, this year’s opening night film is a work of fiction, “The Mill and the Cross”, by Polish director and artist Lech Majewski, who was co-producer and co-writer on Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Majewski’s film takes as its subject the 1564 painting The Way to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. To describe it as a work of fiction is not the whole story, however. While featuring actors Rutger Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling as (respectively) the painter, his patron, and the mother of a young man brutally executed by the Spanish occupiers of Flanders, the film is a blend of beautifully realised naturalism and foregrounded artifice. Majewski first creates Bruegel’s work in tableaux, bringing to life the array of Flemish natives, Spanish soldiers and participants in the Biblical crucifixion that fill the painting. The actors move against a rear-projected reproduction of the background to Bruegel’s work, created by Majewski himself.

York’s character, the artist’s patron, Nicholaes Jonghelinck, is seen bemoaning the brutality of the Spanish forces, and also engaged in conversation with the artist, discussing how he can use his work to portray the suffering of the people under the Spanish yoke. Majewski, after Bruegel, is unflinching in depicting the degradations of medieval punishment. A young man is whipped and beaten senseless, before being attached to a wheel atop a pole, and left as pickings for the circling birds. In another scene, a woman is buried alive. In yet another, dishevelled and distraught prisoners are shown languishing and chained in a squalid jail. By contrast, children play, peasants dance and a couple are repeatedly depicted on the periphery of scenes, engaged in a carnal clinch. Life goes on. Towards the end, there is the crucifixion itself, somewhere between “realistic” representation and passion play, with the Spanish military taking the place of the Roman soldiers. Watching over this is the miller from the mill of the film’s title. The mill is a gigantic and fearful machine mounted high on a rock above the open land where much of the film—and Bruegel’s painting—is set. The symbolism is little disguised, at least here, though in Bruegel’s time it may have been intentionally more obscure to many observers. The miller, says artist to patron, “is grinding out the bread of life and destiny”. He is God.

There is a resonance here with Peter Greenaway’s 2007 film “Nightwatching”, which offered an investigation, again through a fictionalised account, of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch of 1642. Greenaway also often deploys multiple effects to create different atmospheres and layers within his films. However, Greenaway was more concerned with the details of Rembrandt’s civic life, and a particular art historical debate. For Majewski, the intention seems to be to flag up the uncontroversial analysis that Bruegel was subtly representing the oppression of his homeland and the religious hypocrisy of the invaders, and to do so with the most striking and haunting imagery.

For details on more films at ArtFifa, see our March print edition

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