This is a movie about a painting, The Way to Calvary, by Pietr Bruegal the Elder (1525-69). The cross dragging figure of Christ is of miniscule size, surrounded by scores of peasantry, citizens, soldiers, dogs, some lamenting figures, carts, urchins. The biblical scene has been transported to the artist's contemporary Flanders, which was under Spanish domination and a period of barbarous religious prosecution. Poles mounted with wheels meant for strapping condemned men facing skyward to be pecked to death by carnivorous birds dot the sprawling plain. Towards the left rustics dance, while towards the right crucifixes are under erection and a thick circular crowd like a cluster of flies has gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Most striking is the eponymous wind mill perched atop a bizarre sheer vertical cliff composed of writhing twisted shapes of rock. This is certainly an unusual depiction of the events of Calvary, an inconspicuous non event in a carnival like atmosphere. The painter has depicted his times with a profusion of detail and mingled it with the events of the New Testament, which are lent immediacy by the startling transposition to a contemporaneous setting. He simultaneously passes judgement on his times, expresses his own depth of religious feeling (reminiscent of Tolstoi) and at the same time surrounding it with the beauty of nature, the country folk with their simple, rough, mild or merciless ways.
As the film opens the painting is being set up, with real actors taking the place of the painted figures on an actual plain identical with the painting and of course the mill on the cliff except that the mill sets into motion and the figures jump to life.The painting is enacted and put to music with but few scraps of dialog and we share a dozen stories from the hundreds of folk who populate the picture.
Breugal's vast and dense canvas is a little more than a commentary on his age. It is in fact an impassioned expression of his vision of existence, as complex as la Giocanda, seen in the light of Christian ideology, using the powerful metaphor of the crucifixion, here inconspicuously embedded in the eventful microcosm of the middle ages. The film uses the arsenal of latest technology, to transmute it into something widely accessible. It is universal enough to be about our own time, because much is the same.
This is a ravishing movie. More than anything else it captures the mood and feel of the original work, its tints and shapes and the rustic music. Painting, after all is like cinema a visual art primarily. The director's achievement is to have imbibed, interpreted and preserved the exaltation of feeling (which may be termed sublime), giving it the extra dimensions of motion and sound. He has in fact brought the canvas to life for the common man.
The Way to Calvary, by Pietr Breugal