“A mere man subject to earthly passions and sufferings however noble in himself cannot be equated with the majesty of God”.
Peter Greenaway’s feature films – from The Draughtsman’s Contract through to The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover have highlighted a child’s growth through to adolescence – and here, in The Baby Of Macon, the child has become a baby again. This may simply be a coincidence, but it appears that the role of the child in its chronological filmography is undergoing a ‘second coming’ – yet deliberate or not, the child’s ‘second coming’ is especially suited to this particular film where the baby’s mere existence has made him bankable, ripe for adults’ exploitation.
The Baby Of Macon is set during the seventeenth century – taking place in Macon, where “God is forgotten” and “The Church is in ruins”. Here, the women are barren, and so the birth of a beautiful child to an old and withered hag would seem nothing less than a miracle. During her labour, the baby’s mother cries out: “It is coming!” and the townspeople repeat this phrase as in a pantomime. Their tone is mocking, disbelieving – perhaps a reflection on the dubious virgin birth of Mary, mother of Jesus; and the idea of religious ecstasy breeding belief. Perhaps the townspeople are jealous even – why have they not been blessed like this pathetic, dried up woman?
The child’s sister utilises the notion of religious ecstasy – shrewd enough to realise that the baby is being regarded as a blessing – and therefore profitable, and she permits a mass-hypnotism of the people in order to convince them that she is the child’s actual mother.
Priest’s Son: Where is the child’s mother?
Woman 1 (to the baby’s sister): You are so like his mother.
Priest’s Son: So where is the child’s mother?
Woman 2: She is so like his mother.
The child is deemed a saint – its ‘miracle’ birth brought about to save tainted souls and sanctify the harvest – although the baby’s sister employs it as a way to make money, insisting on a large share of every crop – and it is essentially the land-owners and the wealthy who benefit from a ‘blessing’. The sister offers one impoverished, ailing woman a blessing “to show how magnanimous we are”, but this is plainly a token gesture – as illustrated when the sister abuses her power to manipulate the livelihood of a man with nothing to offer, and she directs two of his daughters to become prostitutes; a sacrifice so that his other offspring might be blessed.
The baby is voiceless, in that his lips are never shown to move. He is spoken for by a cantor, reflecting his thoughts – a physical, visual voice-over. Perhaps this is an allusion to the idea of ‘God’s mouthpiece’; the blasphemy of verbalising and translating the divinity of God into a physical entity. This concept, combined with the idea of the ‘miraculous’ child providing blessings in order to sell faith, seems an explicit criticism of Jesus’ existence as the manifestation of ‘God on Earth’ – a God whom one can touch and observe on a realistic plane – and therefore, remove religion from the abstract, where one might have difficulty in believing it. A personification of God is consequently, a beneficial marketing strategy.
Ironically, the child does have powers – both prophetic and magical, only the townspeople do not believe this; they prefer the child’s image of innocence, which they suck from the ‘baby’ like sap – putting the child on a pedestal to provide meaning for their empty, obscure lives. And the sister is dismissive of these powers when it suits her own vanity – as illustrated when she shares her ambitions:
Sister: I will be rich.
Child (Cantor voiceover): You will be wretched.
Sister: … What do you know? You are just a child.
Her words are almost repeated word for word – just as a child receives pleasure in echoing an adult’s phrases. Here however, the child mimics his sister’s tone with scornful contradiction – a mocking mirror, which is – in fact, a prophesy. And when the sister seduces the priest’s son with her little brother present, she assures the son with: “Pay no attention, he’s just a child”. It is only when the child ‘orders’ a bull to castrate the priest’s son to death, that the sister finally understands the might of her brother – but who believes her?
Sister: It was the child that did it.
Woman I: She blames the child.
Woman 2: She blames the child.
Just before the priest’s son is killed, the child instructs the sister: “It is not you who must bleed, but him! Your blood is too precious… You have united your virginity to my birth. Hold on to your virginity…”
This sister has tried to convince the town of Macon that she – like Jesus’ mother, had a virgin birth and that her seduction of the priest’s son was a plan to win over his skepticism. The child has been brought up to believe in the deception of his birth, and the sexual act – traditionally viewed as a life-producing event, would make him doubt his own birthright; his whole existence reduced to absurdity. In protecting the sanctity of his sister’s ‘virginity’, the child may even be depicted as a true ‘saint’.
This exploitation of the child is usurped by the church, and during communion, his blood is sold to the townspeople as a physical ‘blessing’ in return for a small fortune, reminiscent of Christ’s own communion with his disciples at the Last Supper. Christ’s offering was symbolic with the wine and matzo, but here the implications are cannibalistic – a proper ‘supper’ for the exploiters to feed upon and make money by auctioning off the blood. In addition, it is mildly prophetic with its connotations of the Last Supper, as the child will shortly be suffocated by his sister.
Child (Cantor voiceover): These are the fluids of my body, these are the liquids of my life.
The sister suffocates her brother in a belated act of salvation, putting an end to the church’s greed – obviously she cannot see the parallels with her own behaviour: “With me, you could have been a saint, beautiful child…” The child responds with: “Saints are forgotten”– his last, dying words. He is wise, and implies that saints outlive their purpose when they perish, and are only good for abuse while they are alive.
This abuse is taken even further after the child’s death – when his body parts are severed and given to the townspeople to make their lives a little brighter. Nothing more can be taken from him – he is not even allowed that small dignity. An unknowing donor; his body sold off for reliquaries like a tasteless souvenir.