IMDB says... Behind every great painting lies an even greater story
Updated to repair embarrassing spelling errors.
The 73rd Virgin says...A bit late for Easter, I know, but this will have to do as my lowly attempt at finding a more or less ecumenical movie for the day.
In 1564, King Phillip II of Spain also happens to be King over Flanders thanks to a brutal war, and as such, his red-tuniced Spanish mercenaries enforce by-the-numbers Catholicism on the restive proto-reformist population. In this milieu Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Rutger Hauer) begins his epic landscape, “The Procession to Calvary”. Like almost all painters of his day, he inserts modern characters into a Biblical scene to emphasize religious and political conditions of his time. As he describes his painting idea to his patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York) the rudiments of the painting arrange themselves in the background and foreground.
And that is the only dialog for the first 33 minutes. But as characters from the painting come alive on-screen, a series of seemingly unrelated events are presented. Two woodsmen chop down a nice straight tree. Another rolls a wagon wheel out of the forest and up a hill, a young couple and a peddler meet on the road. The young couple appear to be these two from the painting since they are hauling a calf in a sled.
Then the mercenaries attack, whip, and beat a young man, break him on the wheel and raise him up to be raven food while his helpless wife mourns at the bottom. The victim on the wheel doesn't appear in the painting but the wheel becomes the tree of death in the right foreground. Elsewhere a heretic or witch or harlot, not sure which, is buried alive.
York has by far the toughest role serving as the rational, moral center of the story explaining to his silent wife and the viewer his despair at what this invasion has done to Flanders. He and Hauer have several scenes in which they are obviously acting in front of a blue screen and the script is a little stilted, but it fits well enough with the formal setting and stately pacing of the movie.
Not all is grim Inquisition misery. We are treated to Bruegel waking early in the morning before his raucous family of about seven children and his poor young wife arise and begin their pastoral day. In one of the best domestic scenes his children awake and tumble out of unknown corners of the bed covers. A fool plays his horn while another dances and playfully harasses a big husky girl. A young man tries to gain the notice of a beautiful girl, Bruegel's wife tries to keep her threshold clean while an endless string of children and animals track dirt upon it. Out of every window and doorway can be seen a mill on a fantastic mountain top.
A more traditional passion play begins as a heretic (listed in the credits as “Crucified” while the wheel victim is “Wheelified”) is arrested, scourged and led up the mountain in the painting to the desolate “circle of flies” or Golgotha in the right background. A procession gathers. Few show any pity, only passing interest. We meet the aged “Mary” (Charlotte Rampling) whom Bruegel has modeled after his young wife but has now projected 30 years and grief onto her face. Over all this hovers the Mill where Bruegel places a distant figure of God as the miller who grinds man into bread. Standing in the painting Jonghelinck asks if Bruegel can't stop all this. He does so at the moment the crucified falls under his cross; the windmill stops, the procession stops, and there is the painting; before it all starts up again. Bruegel opines on man's ability to miss the most important event right in front of their faces.
Finally the procession is completed, the crucifixion is over, the body is in it's cave. In one of the most moving portraits of dissolution and chaos I've ever seen, Judas prepares to hang himself in the foreground and Bruegel drops and then chases his wind-scattered sketches and studies in the background. Director Lech Majewski uses his beloved recently deceased fellow Pole Henryk Gorecki's haunting “Miserere (Mercy)", Opus. 44 for the music. The roiling cloudy sky is pasted in from New Zealand.
The next morning there is no obvious Resurrection; everyone begins their day under the same mill and the same ravens. The mercenaries whip another heretic, but there is music and dancing fools and barking dogs, and the peasants form a circle on a hillside for an ecstatic dance somewhat reminiscent of Fellini's 8 1/2 before the film fades to the actual painting hanging in a gallery.
So how well does this movie actually watch? The production design and costumes are amazing. Beautiful painterly colors and lighting effects are central to making us feel the painting in the background and then around us. Costumes seem to come straight from the painting including outrageous codpieces on some of the men. There are vast silences with only the sound of wind, birds and bugs (Majewski also did the sound design). Even the violent scenes play out with almost no fanfare or music reinforcing the message that, as Majewski says in the special features documentary, “routine always wins”.
The cumulative effect is, to use Ebert's word, "meditative", and soothing despite the story line. Majewski uses blank peasant faces to be our eyes looking simultaneously at the surrounding misery and back out at us across the ages. All are aware of the tragedy around them. All are able to take it in but still live and dance and wait for better times.
The best online reproduction of the painting is probably here.