There are more than a hundred characters in the painting, of different ages, sex, occupation and engaged in various kind of everyday activity. Towering above them all is a huge wind mill atop a craggy limestone hill, turning its creaky but massive wheels around against a cloudy sky, and as it does so, grinding flour for the bread of life but otherwise indifferent to the fate of the various villagers below, subjected to all kinds of random violence visited upon them and dumbly accepted by them as part of great Plan of God, with endurance but without comprehension either by Nature or by the mercenary Spanish soldiers hired by its conquerors, the Emperor of Spain. God is everywhere. There is constant flogging of the villagers, dressed up against their will as Christ figures, being crucified, to "edify" them for the sake of their immortal souls, being tied to a cart wheel and placed on top of a pole to be pecked at by carrions. Below them one always finds a Mary figure (Charlotte Rampling), the Mother of Sorrow, mourning the death of lost souls at the foot of the crucifixes. She confesses to his son that she does not know why there should be so much suffering and questions whether there is any purpose to it. Whatever the answer to her questions may be, we see "heretics" buried alive. In the mean time, life goes on, the poor peasants making love, making babies, eking out a bare existence with little in the way of material comforts, taking time off whenever they can to relieve the hardships and monotony of their short and brutish life to enjoy a little, by dancing to the tune of a medieval horn.The happiest amongst them are the little children, who do not yet know anything about life's miseries and life's incessant toil. They would eat their daily bread after which they would run around, play fighting with each other, jumping up and down on one of their brothers covered under a blanket on a bed. People live with their sheep, their geese, their cow under the same roof. From what we see, their lives look not that much different from those of their animals.
Breugel explains to his patron how in his painting, he has a focus, a Christ-figure and his death which remains but a tiny detail, one amongst many, practically drowned by a sea of other details, how there is light on the left, darkness to the right, what symbolize life and what death and how he intends to capture a slice of life and how to immortalize it through his painting, and how in his painting, the miller has replaced God, how the turning of his mill has replaced the turning of man's destiny under the former predestined God-given Fate of man and how his painting is a web of life, like the web of the spider that he sees upon waking up one morning in the fields when he was overcome with tiredness whilst trying to compose a sketch of his famous painting.
The film, directed by Polish director Lech Majewski, looks to me like a series of paintings, with some of its characters suddenly coming alive and us following brief snippets of their life. He has obviously taken meticulous care on how to compose his screen images, so that even the natural scenery which one sees on the outside of windows of his characters is also "framed" as if it were another painting. The boundary between life and its representation, between reality and art, between fact and fiction, between static painted images and moving film images is imperceptibly transcended. The painting has become "alive" ! Without a doubt, it must be "the" most beautiful film I have seen at the HKIFF this year.