Directed by Lech Majewski, Written by Michael Francis Gibson and Lech Majewski
By Erik Noonan
In a craggy, windswept space that opens up before us during its nearly motionless and almost silent scenes, this exploration into the relationship between film and painting revives the upheaval and strife that animate a canvas by Pieter Breughel called The Way to Calvary. Most of the speaking in this picture is monologues, and such flatness separates us from the heavy atmosphere in the world beyond the screen; there are no individuals, only representative figures – Art, the City, the Heart, Eternity, Tyranny, and Reform – but watching what the community endures, and listening to the voices which emerge to tell us about it, we share in the troubled spirit of the story, and that’s where the movie magic comes in.
The place is Flanders, the year 1564. As Pieter (Rutger Hauer) works on a preliminary sketch for his painting, he daydreams, muses over an ox skull and a spider, lolls about on the grass, picnics with his wife Marijken (Joanna Litwin), lugs his folio across a half-imaginary landscape, and patiently explains the picture to his patron Nicolaes Jonghelinck (Michael York). Meanwhile, two events take place: first, the execution of a young heretic (Mateusz Machnik) by the occupying Spanish militia; and second, the Passion of Jesus (Bartosz Capowicz) as Breughel’s finished masterpiece will depict it. Mary (Charlotte Rampling) witnesses the drama as it unfolds, far beneath the measuring eye of the Miller (Marian Makula) ensconced in his mill atop a high rock.
The plot takes shape slowly. Woodsmen search for a tree, chop it down and lop branches from the trunk while a priest blesses it, and tow the pole into town. A group of soldiers in crimson rides out of the mist. They whip a young man and lash him to a wagon wheel they requisition from a passing man rolling it down the path, affix the wheel to the pole & hoist him into the air, crucified, eaten by crows, as they canter off into the morning. There is a traditional painterly Deposition, and then a Pietà, as the young heretic gets taken down from the wheel.
This historical occurrence is compared to Pieter’s version of the Passion myth. Looking on from within the community’s collective imagination, as the deadpan procession slowly passes toward Golgotha, Pieter and an exasperated Nicolaes have the following exchange: “If only we could wrestle the senseless moment to the ground and break its power! You think that you can express this?” “Yes.” “How?” Then Breughel holds up his hand, the Miller replies with the same gesture, and in the moment when Simon helps carry the cross, the universe halts, frozen in its tracks. There follows a magnificent dolly shot backwards along the length of the tableau vivant as the painter goes on: “Be it the birth of Jesus or the fall of Icarus or the death of Saul casting himself upon his sword, all these world-changing events go quite unnoticed by the crowd.” The gathering disperses soon after the grim event, and as Judas hangs himself Pieter scrambles to collect his drawings scattered by the wind.
The film’s images are ambiguous: the mill stands for human labor and ingenuity, but also for cold calculation; the cross stands for the cruelty of the state, but also for people’s capacity for compassion and mercy. Majewski conveys an unusually pure sense of the dignity of the human form: when Marijken is naked, she isn’t a nude, and we look on from a discreet distance as she dresses, set apart from us by a door frame. Breugel’s explanation of his work is also Majewski’s of his own:
PIETER: My painting will have to tell many stories. It should be large enough to hold everything. Everything, all the people. There must be a hundred of them. I will work like the spider I saw this morning building its web. First I define an anchoring point, here, the heart of my web. Below the grindstone our Savior is being ground like grain mercilessly. I will show our Savior being led to Golgotha by the red tunics of the Spanish militia. Although he has fallen at the center of my painting, I must hide him from the eye.
NICOLAES: And why would you want to hide him?
PIETER: Because he is the most important.
The first words spoken in the movie set up an elegant three-way comparison in front of the viewer’s eye.
NICOLAES: So . . . so this could be a group of saints returning from the past to mourn the present state of Flanders.
PIETER: Yes. And when the painting is done, you may have it, if you wish.
We are gently tempted to ask how our present day relates to both the past and the myth, and why it might deserve a saint’s tears.
The story ends with a goofy somehow cosmic abstract folk dance, and the human figures recede downslope. A moment of darkness follows, and the singing voices echo and fade as we slowly zoom out from the painting where it now hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Not since Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Decameron, in which Giotto and his crew work on their frescoes in the bare Scrovegni chapel, has a director so lovingly brought a painter to life for us; and not since Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, in which a ghostly beau monde twirls and bows through the Hermitage, has the remote past housed in a museum seemed so much a part of our own contemporary reality. It’s what we ought to mean when we say the words “art history.”