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iffr: the mill and the cross

Sunday evening at the IFFR saw the European premiere of an interesting cinematic experiment, with Lech Majewski's 'The Mill and the Cross'. In stunning detail, the film brings to life the painting 'The Procession to Calvary' (also known as 'Christ Carrying the Cross') by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Christ Carrying the Cross - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Rather than creating yet another artist's biopic, the film explores the stories and symbolism of this single painting - in a way that perhaps only Kurosawa attempted before, with the Van Gogh chapter in 'Dreams'. Much of its inspiration comes from the book of the same title by Michael Francis Gibson, who also cowrote the screenplay.

Itself a recreation of the Passion of the Christ in a Medieval Flemish landscape, with Spanish soldiers replacing Romans, Bruegel's painting is a rich Christian as well as political allegory. Pointing out the parallels and contrasts between the mill and the cross, between the tree of life on the left and the tree of death on the right, and between the two circles of human activity in the background - it only scratches the surface of the myriad of stories in this painting.

The Mill and the Cross - 1

The film attempts to explain some of the symbolism by having Bruegel (played by Rutger Hauer) comment while sketching. While this may sound as a slightly crude stylistic device, it gives Majewski the chance to emphasize a crucial element of Bruegel's philosophy. In the scene depicted, of Christ collapsing under the weight of the cross, the spectators are all looking the other way (to Simon who is struggling to help him). Distracted, they are missing what is happening - perhaps not grasping its importance, or simply not caring.

The Mill and the Cross - 2

Much more could be said about the painting, and the film doesn't pretend to be an exhaustive study - rather it provides an intriguing introduction. Describing his attitude towards Bruegel's painting in a pre-screening Q&A, Majevski said: "Bruegel is the host and I'm the guest. I just sit there and drink my tea." It nicely sums up the film's humble approach, which does add a new layer of meaning to the painting but mostly just invites the spectator into its world. Of course, the painting does this too, but when was the last time you looked at a painting for 90 minutes?

iffr: qarantina

After 'Son of Babylon', another heartfelt and beautifully shot production coming from Iraq is 'Qarantina', which had its European premiere this weekend at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Directed by Oday Rasheed, this intimate film concentrates (or quarantines) the drama of post-war Iraq in the relationships between five characters: an unnamed professional killer who lives with a family of four in an abandoned building.

Qarantina - 1

While the hitman feels increasingly alienated from human contact, the family has its own problems. The daughter hasn't spoken or eaten for days, mute with the shame of an unwanted pregnancy. The stepmother, who has started an affair with the hitman, finds depressingly little difference between the two men. And the father broods and watches his family disintegrate - "Oh God, these are days of the devil", he exclaims at one point - but can only respond with violence.

Qarantina - 2

Rasheed's quiet and subtle storytelling, in carefully staged, mostly indoor scenes, leaves much of the drama implied. The violence and oppression of contemporary Baghdad are conveyed as an everpresent backdrop, part of daily life. And though the character of the hitman may well be viewed as symbolizing the numbing violence destroying society, 'Qarantina' gives equal weight to the social problems tearing society apart from the inside.

Update: You can now watch the entire film on the IFFR YouTube channel.

into eternity

The documentary 'Into Eternity' chronicles the building of a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland. Designed as a "permanent solution" for radioactive material - which will remain hazardous for at least 100,000 years - the huge underground site is hewn out of solid rock. As such, the site at Onkalo (meaning 'hiding place' in Finnish) is built to last longer than any manmade structure ever has.

Into Eternity

It is a mindboggling timescale, and the documentary takes an appropriately philosophical angle, musing about civilization, myth and time - but with enough humor to show that the stoic Finnish scientists can't quite wrap their head around it either. As one of the project directors sighs, "It is quite possible we will not be understood by the future".

Another question raised by the project is whether or not the site should be marked for future generations. Here, too, the enormous timeframe poses fascinating and rather absurd problems. Some people say the site is best left to be forgotten and shouldn't be marked at all, as any sort of warning would only make future discoverers of the site more curious; while others maintain that markers are a moral responsibility.

Landscape of Thorns

This leads to the further question of how to communicate danger to people 10,000 years or more into the future, when communication itself may have changed beyond recognition. Languages, knowledge and symbols all change - even apart from the fact that few 'media' would be durable enough for the warning message to survive. From the past, famous examples like the Rosetta Stone, Stonehenge or the Pyramids come to mind, but these are all less than 5,000 years old.

Skull & Crossbones

In the 1990s this problem was studied in the U.S. for a similar nuclear waste site, and a lengthy report was published containing a whole range of design concepts, ranging from basic cartoon strips like 'Skull & Crossbones' to fullblown architectural landscapes with names like 'Landscape of Thorns' and 'Menacing Earthworks'. It makes for a fascinating read, this report, fully titled 'Expert Judgement on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant' (excerpts or the full report in PDF).

However, as 'Into Eternity' points out as well, it would be rather sad if the longest lasting remnant of our civilization would be a warning sign for a lethal garbage dump...

Update: As a witty friend remarked, the 'Skull and Crossbones' image can also be interpreted: 'Warning: contains heavy-metal pyjamas'.

the nature of parties

The nature of parties has been imperfectly studied. It is, however, generally understood that a party has a pathology, that it is a kind of individual and that it is likely to be a very perverse individual. And it is also generally understood that a party hardly ever goes the way it is planned or intended. This last, of course, excludes those dismal slave parties, whipped and controlled and dominated, given by ogreish professional hostesses. These are not parties at all but acts and demonstrations, about as spontaneous as peristalsis and as interesting as its end product.

- John Steinbeck, from 'Cannery Row' (1945).

Both 'Cannery Row' and its sequel 'Sweet Thursday' contain some riotous parties, and in 'Tortilla Flat' it even becomes The Party, which was "one last glorious hopeless assault on the gods".

No one has studied the psychology of a dying party. It may be raging, howling, boiling, and then a fever sets in and a little silence and then quickly quickly it is gone, the guests go home or go to sleep or wander away to some other affair and they leave a dead body.