This unusual film from Lech Majewski -- a former designer of Polish movie posters who now wears multiple hats on his films, including writer, director and cameraman -- bears some relationship to his earlier masterpiece THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (2004). In that film, an art historian embarks on an affair with a man studying gondola hull design; they set up house in a Venetian apartment where the news of her terminal illness compels them to use their time collaborating on a final project, a documentary about Hieronymous Bosch's eponymous 16th century painting, which they research by transforming the interior of their apartment into three-dimensional details of the painting and thus inhabiting it from within. In this new film, Majewski turns his attention to another 16th century Flemish painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "The Procession to Calvary," working from a non-fiction study of the painting by Michael Gibson. Like its predecessor, the film is a fascinating hybrid of narrative and essay that demands the viewer's complete engagement.
What this film essentially does is take the viewer's hand and walk with us through the painting, which is recreated with actors, digital animation, three-dimensional modelling and so forth. There is very little dialogue, just enough to anchor us in the historical and political setting that produced, and therefore informs, the painting. Rutger Hauer is Bruegel, Michael York is his patron, and Charlotte Rampling appears as the Virgin Mary, whose son, dragging the cross to the site of his crucifixion, is the central point of the heavily peopled canvas but somehow its least obvious occupant. I don't like to describe one film by refering to another, but while watching this, I was continually reminded of Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE -- a film I don't like, but which pretends to a level of human scope and cosmic gravity that I found this film inhabited far more naturally.
I've reviewed this film in depth for the April 2012 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, so I mustn't spoil my paid work for them with further details here. However, I will say that this hybrid museum-theater piece is an impressive achievement, an education in art appreciation and compositional analysis that may just give you a Krell boost as a viewer of motion pictures.
Viewed on Kino Lorber Blu-ray disc.