by Mark Leeper
The Saint - The Fifth Element
The Baby of Macon
and razor-sharp attack on
Catholic theology, this film was never even
released in the United States until now. What may
be a second Messiah is born in the 17th Century in
a time of pestilence. The ignorance of the people
and the Church turn the event into a far worse
disaster. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4), 7 (0 to 10)
I think I always have one of two reactions to Peter Greenaway films. Either I dislike the film or I like it but feel it is un- recommendable. In the latter category were The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and Prospero's Books. His Baby of Macon [there is a circumflex over the "a" in "Macon"] also falls into that category, but I do not have to worry about people not liking it as much as I did, at least in the United States. It was considered either so controversial, so revolting, or both, that it just never found a United States distributor.
More than usual with a Greenaway film, it is difficult to tell exactly what is going on. Presumably the story is of a play being performed and/or set at the 17th Century Court of the Medici--it is hard to tell which since events in and out of the play seem to blend together. As would have pleased Philip K. Dick, how many levels of play-within-play there are is impossible to determine. The story is a sort of burlesque of the birth of a new Messiah, twisting as many of the traditional Catholic symbols as possible. It is a time of multiple pestilence's and all the women of the region are sterile. When an obese old hag actually succeeds in giving birth to a beautiful baby, the local women see it as a miraculous birth, even to the point of asking for the baby's spit to use as an elixir. The baby's sister (played by Julia Ormond), sees a good thing and claims the baby as her own child and "proves" the birth to be miraculous by proving she is still a virgin. The son of the Bishop (Ralph Fiennes) is a scientist and a skeptic who does not believe in the purported new Messiah and in trying to disprove the ersatz Virgin Mary is pulled into the symbolism as a latter-day Joseph. As Ormand's character tells him, "Too many proofs spoil the truth."
Somehow all this does not convey the throat-biting viciousness of this satire. By any objective measure, The Last Temptation of Christ was by comparison a gentle and reverent jibe. Greenaway is a Howard Stern for intellectuals and he keeps revealing that he has stores of untapped acid and bile still in him. While he has a right to express himself as he wishes, I think if I were Catholic I would be very uncomfortable with this film. As interesting as The Baby of Macon is, Greenaway makes it a real trial to sit through. He uses a stodgy, mock-neo-classical, dry style that sucks the interest out of a scene like fluids out of a baby. It is hard to imagine another director who could make so dull a scene that features full- frontal nudity from both Ormond and Fiennes. Perhaps the reason Greenaway gets away putting so much nudity in is films is that in doing so he completely sidesteps eroticism.
The production design skillfully makes each frame fascinating while at the same time making so many full scenes seem endless. This film had four reasonable endings and gave the impression of finishing all afternoon. Greenaway often tries to build to a sort of twist ending, but here the twist is much more expected than it was in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Fans of Masterpiece Theater in the 1960s will no doubt recognize the main musical theme as well as an unsurprising plot twist near the end.
Julia Ormond could well prove herself the Ingrid Bergman of her generation. Like Bergman she is a B+ actress with an A+ screen charm, even in what is in this case a rather detestable role. Ralph Fiennes, on the other hand, completely submerges his English Patient charm and plays the rather pasty-faced son of the Bishop. The Bishop, incidentally, is played by veteran actor Philip Stone. I first noticed Stone in Unearthly Stranger, a great (but sadly now very rare) science fiction film from 1963. It is good to see him still acting.
The best Greenaway film is really a mixed bag of quality, and this one is more mixed than most. I would give The Baby of Macon a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.
More info about The Baby of Macon at the Internet Movie Database