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THE BISHOP, THE ACTRESS AND THE VIRGIN
The Baby of Macon (DVD)
Member Name: Mauri
The Baby of Macon (DVD)
Advantages: Visually stunning, well acted
Disadvantages: Sex and violence
Pretentious visual masturbation or groundbreaking inspired filmmaking? Peter Greenaway’s films have always split critics and audiences alike. One thing that can be said is that he never tried to compromise his ideas or vision to suit a mainstream cinema audience. From his early minor success with ‘The Draughtsman's Contract’ (1982), ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ (1985) to the more commercial ‘The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover’ (1989) he has always provided a grand screen spectacle and enough controversy to keep critical tongues wagging.
‘The Baby of Macon’ (1993) fits the bill. It is rated by some has his best film to date, its themes of sexual exploitation, violence and institutional hypocrisy have made it also one of his most notorious films.
‘The Baby of Macon’ is a ‘play within a play’ or more accurately a play within a film. In a northern Italian state in 1657 a religious morality play is to be performed in front or a distinguished audience of church dignitaries and VIP’s including Prince Cosimo De Medici heir of the famous family. The play is set 100 years previously and deals with a miraculous birth in 16th France in the plague and famine stricken region around Macon where many women are infertile. A beautiful baby is born to an old disfigured woman, guessing the resentment and jealousy that the woman would be subject to by the other local women her grown up daughter Mary claims the baby as her own and claims the birth was a virgin birth and thus a miracle. The locals see the event as a sign from God and attribute saintly powers to the baby bringing it tributes in return for blessings. Soon the Church comes to hear of this and the local bishop sends his son to investigate matters. Violence and tragedy follows as the events of the play become intertwined with reality. The cast being jealous of the lead actress begin to plot her downfall in the same way that the Church and locals plan the downfall of the ‘virginal’ Mary within the play. The consequences are particularly brutal and those not comfortable with sexual violence might not be able to face some scenes in this film.
CAST & OPINION
Julia Ormond ... The Daughter
Ralph Fiennes ... The Bishop's Son
Philip Stone ... The Bishop
Jonathan Lacey ... Cosimo Medici
Don Henderson ... The Father Confessor
Directed and written by Peter Greenaway
Anyone familiar with Greenaway will be comfortable with the precise and artistic nature of his filmmaking. The scenes are presented as an animated Renaissance tableaux. The richness of colour the use of widescreen and the classical musical score (not for once by long time Greenaway collaborator Michel Nyman) lend the visuals a profundity, exactness of detail which along with the underlying but implied decadence remind us of a painting by one of the old renaissance masters. This eloquence of visual stimulation and the ordered mannered atmosphere it creates is sharply at odds with the dark and brutal subject matter that it depicts.
At the heart of the film are lies and envy. Mary passes the baby off as her own in order to profit from the deception. The authorities embodied by the Church are keen to take control of the situation to exploit the miraculous baby for themselves, eventually selling its body fluids as powerful magical charms. In this superstitious and spiritual world science and logic does not yet have a hold and the only character, the bishop’s son who embodies these ideals is soon symbolically a victim of these primal beliefs.
The film is sumptuous to look at helped by the wonderful costumes designed by Dien van Straalen and sets designed by Ben van Os, Jan Roelfs. The performances are uniformly good although Julia Ormond’s Mary stands out for her emotion, passion and intensity. Ormond is a classically trained actress who made her mark on the stage before going to Hollywood and her stagecraft is certainly evident in this film.
Having said all this is there anything to the film past the visuals and the atmosphere? Yes there is but Greenaway isn’t the kind of director that will make things easy for you. The themes of the film are buried in symbolism and abstractions. Greenaway surprisingly given the explicit nature of story seems to making a point about the exploitation and use of sexual violence for entertainment.
The inclusion of rape scenes in the play, which the audience is ‘entertained’ or titillated by without knowing it is witnessing a real act of violence ask questions of us the real audience and how we view such scenes on the screen and how such material is used by filmmakers. The sexual violence in the film while not being explicit is still powerful and hard to watch but the use of the play within the play device allows Greewaway to point out the abuse of such violence on screen an accusation he himself has suffered in the past without actually doing it himself. The final irony is the audience reaction to the end of the play, which is greeted by applause in approval of the morally just ending, oblivious of the horrors that have taken place.
The film also serves up religious satire as Greenaway highlights the hypocrisy of the church denouncing the fake miracle of the virgin birth whilst wanting to control the resultant child and exploit it for its own gain and power. The story of the virgin birth is an obvious subversion of the nativity play and the resultant consequences an attack on superstition and religion. It is no surprise that on its release the film was condemned by the Church and received only a limited release in the US and I believe it is still currently unavailable on DVD.
Merging sexual themes with violence is always problematic in cinema and it is possibly the last taboo. A filmmaker opens himself up to the accusation of exploitation, which is sometimes difficult to defend. Greenaway’s use of beautiful images blended with scenes of rape, sex, profanity, murder, cannibalism and torture are disturbing since such themes should be seen to repellent. The juxtaposition itself make uncomfortable viewing and it is this that makes this film such a powerful critique of the gratuitous use of sex and violence in many other ‘artistic’ films.
‘The Baby of Macon’ is well made thoughtful film and may well be Greenaway’s best but it is not perfect and is certainly not for everyone. The UK certification of 18 is deserved for its content and at 122 min it is not a short film. The plotting of the film and the nature of the play within a play can make the story complex and difficult to follow but overall it is worth seeing if you normally enjoy Greenaway’s visually exuberant films.
© Mauri 2007
Summary: A subverted morality tale by Peter Greenaway