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Filmmaker looks at religion, human rights through eyes of Flemish painter

April 13, 2012

NEW YORK

As he travels around the world presenting his film “The Mill and the Cross,” Polish director Lech Majewski finds himself discussing the many religious themes in the work.

The film centers on about a dozen of the 500 characters that inhabit Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “The Procession to Calvary,” painted in 1564 when Flanders suffered under Spain’s attempt to crush the Protestant Reformation in the Low Countries.

The movie invites spectators to “occupy” the artwork, as well as the mind of an artist. It lavishly recreates Bruegel’s Flemish landscape bit by bit and shows the painter (played by Rutger Hauer) discussing why he places Christ and objects such as a cliff-top mill in a certain way. The painting itself has seven different perspectives.

Some viewers have been disturbed by the film’s violent depictions of the Spanish suppression and the Passion, but Majewski says though these scenes are integral to the work, he did not “dwell on” them because if he had, viewers would have been “horrified.”

“Violence is violence. Just look at the crucifixion,” Majewski told ENInews in a telephone interview as he stopped over in Europe on his way from Hong Kong’s International Film Festival to Boston.

“I didn’t think about offending or not offending anyone. I was thinking about being truthful to the subject. I believe that if you do your due diligence in building up the subject of your work, then people shouldn't be offended, they’ll know the difference,” he added.

Majewski told ENInews that he also wanted to stay true to Bruegel’s religious symbolism and to draw parallels between Christ’s passion and the suffering of average people who are persecuted because of their beliefs.

“There’s a symbolic aspect of religion in the film as in the painting, but there’s also the manipulative aspect because if religion is used in a forceful manner just to overrun other people’s beliefs then it’s the negative and opposite side of what it should be,” he said. “This is nothing to do with religion, but with human ego, and the religion is an external coat for that ego.” 

Available on DVD in the United States a year after its launch at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, the film was shown in Italy throughout Easter. It will open in Argentina in May and in Spain in June. Majewski will discuss the film at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. on April 13.

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