Pieter Brueghel packed his 16th-century Passion painting, The Way to Calvary, with hundreds of figures based on his own contemporaries, conflating the persecution of Christ with the Spanish occupation that raged outside his studio. In a feat of artistry worthy of its source, Polish director Lech Majewski (Gospel According to Harry) takes us deep inside the Flemish master's beautiful nightmare, bringing to life dozens of the work's characters, from carousing peasants and murderous redcoats to the painter himself---uncannily embodied by former replicant and shotgun-wielding hobo Rutger Hauer. While Bruegel's painting told a story, Majewski's film is a deconstruction of said tale, forsaking traditional narrative structures for a series of authoritatively realized tableaux.
Adapted from a book of criticism, The Mill and the Cross can feel more like a museum lecture than a feature film, especially when old lions Hauer, Michael York and Charlotte Rampling are tasked with relaying reams of awkward exposition. But like a painting, the movie's achievements have nothing to do with sound; from physical staging to layered CGI, Majewski's film is a dazzling master class in visual composition. Its splendors are best appreciated in singular images---horsemen emerge from a milky mist, townspeople dance over a green hillside, a couple rises into the morning shadows---even as the work eventually coalesces into a surprisingly moving finale. After toil and terror, there can still be joy.
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