In 1966, a Time magazine cover asked the question: Is God dead? This is briefly featured in today’s film, Rosemary’s Baby (1968). One cannot underscore enough how much of a bellwether moment this was in American culture. If you think times are crazy now, you should take a look at the 1960s. If it is racial problems you want, the decade saw not only the assassination of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but a series of race riots and threats of revolution across the country and world. Worried about Russia and possible nuclear war? The 1960s were the height of the Cold War, the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, Russia’s communist title from 1918 to 1989. There were a couple of times in those years when the doomsday clock nearly hit midnight as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there was the hot war fought in Vietnam. The decade opened up a pandora’s box of problems we are still dealing with today, though we act like these are extraordinary times. As a practicing Catholic, my concerns are more on the topic of religion, and the Time cover indicates some unfortunate changes in attitudes taking place. The Catholic Church attempted to respond to what was going on with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and from it came a number of needed reinterpretations of Church doctrine. Still, it was too little, too late, to prevent an insidious movie like today’s from being unleashed on the public.
Rosemary’s Baby starts innocuously enough, with a young couple, Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), moving into a swanky uptown apartment building called the Bramford. They do so despite warnings from their friends about the residence’s dark past. They seem unjustified until one day Terry Gionoffrio (Angela Dorian) commits suicide by jumping out of one of the windows in their neighbor’s seventh floor apartment. Those neighbors, by the way, are Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). They appear to be harmless enough, particularly since they are elderly, and Guy comes to be close friends with them. Rosemary, on the other hand, finds them annoying. This is when things begin to diverge for the Woodhouses. Guy’s acting career suddenly takes off, with him earning several prominent roles. Meanwhile, Rosemary wants to have a baby, but finds the intrusion of the Castevets on this matter inconvenient. On the night they hope to conceive, the neighbors bring over a desert of chocolate mousse. Rosemary finds the taste of hers off-putting, but is lectured by Guy for being rude when she refuses to eat all of it. Powering through it, though, leads to her passing out. It also induces a hallucinogenic state where the other tenants of the building are all gathered around her in the nude while she is raped by satan. When she awakens the next morning, she is terrified to find scratches on her body, though Guy explains that he had his way with her while she was asleep. Her disturbance over this matter is mitigated somewhat by the news that she is pregnant. Yet again, though, the Castevets intervene, insisting that Rosemary see their physician, Dr. Abraham Sapirstein (Ralph Bellamy) instead of her own regular doctor. For the moment, Rosemary goes along with these instructions, but begins to worry when she finds her pregnancy to be quite painful. Feeling like she is without friends in her home, she consults an acquaintance of hers, Hutch (Maurice Evans), and expresses her concerns. He begins doing some research on the building in which she lives, but mysteriously slips into a coma before he can share his findings. With the pangs not going away, and her condition worsening, she begins to insist on going to her original doctor. It is at this moment that the troubles magically go away. Some months later, though, Rosemary learns that Hutch has passed away. Before dying, he was able to write down some information, which is then passed along to Rosemary. It confirms the worst for her. The Castevets are satan worshippers, along with the rest of those living in the building. It also appears that Guy has fallen in with them. Hysterical, she finally makes it to Dr. Hill (Charles Grodin), the doctor she wanted to see in the first place, who ends up calling Dr. Sapirstein in and sedating her. She is then made a prisoner in her apartment, where she eventually goes into labor. Coming to after the birth, Guy tells her that the baby had been arrived stillborn. What contradicts this is when she begins hearing the cries of an infant. Discovering a hidden door that leads to the Castevets, she finds all the culprits gathered around a bassinet draped in black with an upside-down Cross hanging over it. She seems to know instinctively that it is hers, even though she is told that it belongs to the devil. Instead of recoiling in shock, she decides to nurse the child when she is invited to do so. That is where this awfulness comes to an end.
There are many layers of problems with Rosemary’s Baby, so much so that I have hesitated for so long in reviewing it. Among the most alarming of these is that the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress has declared this film, “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” This simply means that it will be preserved by that institution. I suppose it is all in how you interpret the word “significant.” My introduction speaks to the historical part. There were a lot of things going on at the time to which this film was responding. Still, I cannot imagine what would be “aesthetically . . . significant” about a movie that features a scene where a woman is raped by the devil, and then brushes aside the husband claiming responsibility for the evidence. Whether or not you believe in the existence of such things, it is beyond me why anyone would want to preserve a movie that has such a scene in it. Even without the sexual assault, Rosemary is consistently abused throughout the proceedings. It is disgusting, yet this is what we want to call art?
It is the cultural aspect of the words quoted above about Rosemary’s Baby about which I take the most issue. Yes, this is a Catholic thing. During the tragic rape scene, there are not just the tenants of the Bramford looking on, but several representatives of the Catholic Church, including one who looks a lot like the pope. In my dissertation, “‘The Costumed Catholic’: Catholics, Whiteness, and the Movies, 1928-1973,” I cast this scene as the filmmakers making it seem like the Church is in league with ultimate evil. For me, it is part and parcel of an increasingly morally bankrupt American culture that comes up with a question like “Is God dead?” God is not dead so long as love is alive. What is remarkable about this concept is that God is love, but He does not need us to express it. Everything He has done since the beginning, the real beginning, has been an expression of His love for us. Yet, like petulant children, we question His existence when we do not get our way. At the same time, I am for a society where freedom of expression is sacrosanct, meaning that, theoretically, a film such as this one can be made. What I find astounding, though, is how it flies in the face of decency, irrespective of any kind of tradition upon which our culture and society were founded. The supposed heroine of the film, Rosemary, after spending so much time fighting against a gradually more overt evil and imprisonment, seems content to be the mother of the antichrist. It is appalling, it is shocking, and it is a large part of the reason for the existence of this blog.
Do not see Rosemary’s Baby. There is always the danger of banning something because, like certain books or other taboo subjects, it only increases their popularity. Let your protest against this kind of filth come in the form of a silent disapprobation. Read this review once, and then never again lay eyes upon it. Do not send it to any of your friends. Instead, fix in your heart and mind this one directive: do not see Rosemary’s Baby.