Lech Majewski has just presented his new film, The Mill and the Cross, at the Sundance, Rotterdam and Göteborg film festivals and at the Louvre in Paris, and we'll get to the first round of critical reaction in a moment. First, though, we're proud and pleased to announce that we're presenting a retrospective of Films by Lech Majewski. Before taking a quick look at each of them, we should note right off that these films are viewable everywhere in the world except the United States, Canada and Poland.
Let's start with the film we're presenting for free: "The Handycam has produced its first masterpiece," Tim Lucas announced in Sight & Sound back in 2008. "Shot entirely on a single Sony PD100 camera, held at different times by the director or one of its two principals, The Garden of Earthly Delights  is a kind of triptych, much like the 1503 Hieronymous Bosch painting (subtitled 'The Millennium') from which it takes its name." The film "is firstly the camcorder diary of an intense love affair that blossoms between art historian Claudia Cossan (Claudine Spiteri) and naval engineer Chris Martin (Chris Nightingale) after Claudine delivers a mesmerizing National Gallery lecture on Bosch's masterwork. Secondly, it is the film about Bosch's painting that the lovers decide to make in collaboration after taking an apartment in Venice, a project that becomes Claudine's last hope for a legacy when she is diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Finally, it is their video recreation of the masterpiece… I can think of no film since the death of Kieslowski that so masterfully encompasses so much of the faceted concreteness of life, as well as its dimensions of spiritual mystery."
To back up, then, and proceed chronologically, when the Toronto International Film Festival presented Gospel According to Harry (1994), Piers Handling wrote: "This highly visual, beautifully shot film functions as a metaphor of modern discontent. As in a poem, we enter a dreamlike world where our imagination is given free rein… a vast allegorical canvas that embraces the political and the religious."
The Pacific Film Archive in 2007: "A fitting introduction to Majewski's singular vision and multiple talents, The Roe's Room  is the cinematic version of the 'autobiographical opera' Pokój saren (itself based upon a book of his poetry), which was later selected as one of the best new operas in the world by International Theater Institute. In 19th-century opera, emotions sing, and this 20th-century film jarringly recreates this truth inside a decaying Polish apartment complex… Reminiscent of the fantasies of Polish writer Bruno Schulz, The Roe's Room is a work to be felt as well as heard and seen, soaring with the harmonic beauty of song, and the just as beatific world of dream."
AO Scott in the New York Times in 2001: "Mr Majewski, a Polish director who wrote the screenplay for Julian Schnabel's Basquiat, is clearly fascinated with self-immolating artists. But he doesn't go the usual route of exploring the psychological links between creativity and pathology." Wojaczek (1999) "does not explain its hero's personality so much as subject the audience to it. Played by Krzystof Siwczyk, who looks a little like a soulful, Slavic Kurt Cobain, Wojaczek is a charming, maddening poète maudit whose every waking moment is a rebellion against the world around him. That world, Poland in the late 1960's — the real Wojaczek died in 1971, at the age of 26 — is presented in gorgeously grim black and white. Mr Majewski's camerawork has an almost classical austerity, and for its first half the movie seems as static and distant as his shots. But just as Wojaczek's nihilism has a core of passionate wit, so too does the movie as it moves deathward, picking up glimmers of humor amid the gloom."
Robert Koehler in Variety: "When it isn't exciting the eye with its precise, painterly imagery, Lech Majewski's Angelus  amuses in a wry, absurdist fashion… The film's mode of setting up fantastically designed and lensed tableaux shots, has a nearly hallucinating impact on the eye… There's a purified aura of beauty in Angelus that creates a sometimes stunning sense of the imagination overcoming all obstacles."
DiVinities (2006) is a series of short visual poems that have screened, for example, at MoMA.
Jeannette Catsoulis in the NYT: "The pungent layers of narrative that make up Glass Lips [2007, image at the top] may cross and collide — and occasionally confuse — but the intelligence behind them is clear… [T]his haunting look at the nature of nurture uses the childhood memories of a traumatized young poet to explore themes and visuals ranging from the biblical to the baroque. Marshaling paternal abuse and maternal passivity into painterly, dialogue-free scenes of domestic isolation, the filmmaker creates an aesthetic of dysfunction that's as beautiful as it is disturbing."
So on to The Mill and the Cross, which, of course, is not part of our retrospective — but this does seem to be the time and place for the overdue roundup.
"Art and insight via quotidian detail wasn't invented in this century, or its previous four, as the Polish Lech Majewski demonstrates in a film about Pieter Bruegel's painting The Way to Calvary," writes SF360's Susan Gerhard. "Ambitious and gorgeously executed, The Mill and the Cross is based on art critic Michael Francis Gibson's book by the same name, an in-depth examination of the 16th-century Flemish painter's depiction of Flemish life under duress. The film utilizes everything the modern world has to offer — computer animation, rock climbers, green screens and Rutger Hauer — to bring Bruegel's painting about milling grain, making love, dancing, singing and the horrors of the Spanish occupation of an ancient Flanders back to vivid life."
"The film, starring Rutger Hauer as Bruegel, Michael York as his patron [Nicholas Jongelinck] and Charlotte Rampling as the model whom the painter used for his depiction of the Virgin Mary, is moody and dense, employing digital effects and tableaux vivants to give a sense of how Bruegel used contemporary clothes, figures and mores to render a vision of the death of Jesus." The Oregonian's Shawn Levy: "It superficially resembles Peter Greenaway's muddled Nightwatching, which attempted something similar with a famed Rembrandt painting. But it's a livelier, more humane and more colorful film."
"It is impossible to hang a pat label on Mill," writes Joe Bendel. "Though it screened as part of Sundance's New Frontier track for more experimental work, such a rubric really does not fit Majewski's film. It certainly is not non-narrative filmmaking, since it encompasses the greatest story ever told. However, it completely challenges linear notions of time, incorporating Christ's Passion and the world of 1564 Flanders, in which Bruegel and Jongelinck are simultaneous observers and active participants… A personal triumph for Majewski, who also served as producer, co-cinematographer, co-composer, and sound designer, Mill effectively blurs the distinction between film and painting, yet it is more of a 'movie' than nearly anything ever deemed 'experimental film.'"
For those concerned about the film's commercial prospects, Dennis Harvey's review in Variety is quite positive; he even goes so far as to suggest that this "could prove the Polish helmer's belated international breakthrough."