Film Reviews (Seriously) Redux – BLACK NARCISSUS
On September 4, 2011, on a now-defunct personal blog, I published this FR (S) review of Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus. As this is my favorite Powell and Pressburger film, and as this is my first submission for TheCinementals.org, I thought I’d repost it here. Thanks for reading (or re-reading). – Michael
Twelve years. That’s how long I spent in Catholic schools (thirteen, if you include kindergarten). And during my time in the Delaware parochial school system, I encountered nuns in almost every grade; nuns who taught me everything from typing to psychology to trigonometry to sex education (no, really; in fact, it’s a wonder I ever got … well, you know).
With this upbringing, I remember the first time I sat down to watch 1947’s Black Narcissus. I sarcastically thought, “A film about nuns! And set in the Himalayas, no less! How exciting this should be!” Well, shame on me then for judging a DVD by its keep case. While the premise of the story is one of nuns in the Himalayas, the film itself, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressbuerger, is rich with breathtaking color accented by sharp contrast.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a Calcutta-based schoolteacher and devout member of the Order of the Servants of Mary. She receives word that she has been chosen to head a new nunnery, to be called St. Faith, in the Himalayan Mountains, where she and other nuns will provide medical care and education to the locals. This venture will make her the youngest Sister Superior in the history of the Order, and her current Superior, Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts), who does not think she is up to the task, seems to set up Sister Clodagh for failure by assigning the sickly Sister Ruth (Byron) to the group. When Sister Clodagh and her team of nuns arrive, they establish their convent in the Palace of Mopu, which was generously donated to them by the Old General (Esmond Knight), the local man of power and affluence. The nuns are assisted in their efforts by the Old General’s agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a rugged and handsome man who is as worldly-wise as the nuns are spiritually so. But as time progresses, Sister Clodagh and the other nuns find themselves in situations for which they are not prepared, including wavering faith, physical temptation, and psychological madness.
When you watch enough black-and-white films, you learn to notice when the cinematography is better in certain films than in others. For example, compare The Lady Eve (1941) and The Third Man (1949). Both are excellent films in their own rights, but The Third Man uses shadows and light to create darker blacks and fewer grays. The visuals become as integral to the film as the plot, characters, and dialogue, because they set the tone for the film. The Lady Eve simply LOOKS like a “normal” black-and-white film, and there is nothing wrong with that, because that particular tone isn’t critical to that particular film. When you watch most modern color films, the colors are just there on the screen, as they normally would be in daily life. One example, though, of integral color usage is 1990’s Dick Tracy. Director Warren Beatty assaults the eyes of his viewers with screaming, contrasting primary colors throughout the film. Compare it to most modern color films, and the difference is immediately evident.
That use of color in Dick Tracy set a tone of nostalgia, done to give the film that old four-color comic strip feel, and it worked. But the use of color in Black Narcissus goes far beyond visual gimmickry. The color plays an important part in setting the tone and establishing a major contrast in the film.
When the nuns arrive at the highest point in the Himalayas, they find a natural environment exploding with rich color, yet in they walk, wearing the plainest of full-length white habits. We know that the nuns are chaste, and we can surmise that people living on a remote mountaintop are going to be somewhat primitive by comparison. But the radical contrasts between the nuns’ white habits (and the white nuns themselves) and the colorful local flora (and the darker-skinned “natives” of Hindu descent), drive the “fish out of water” point home without a whisper of dialogue. But the color isn’t the only source of contrast found in this film.
According to the film’s narration, “Nanga Dalle,” the mountain on which the convent stands, means “The Bare Goddess.” How fitting a name is this for a place where nuns will live? They are bare in that the will never procreate, and they are goddesses by their holy nature. In contrast to that, when the edifice was known as the Palace of Mopu, it housed The Old General’s father’s mistresses. If you can take that step and liken the mistresses to prostitutes (if the man had a house full of them, they surely weren’t in it for love), how fitting a name is “The Bare Goddess” for them as well? They were bare because of their dearth of morals, and they were goddesses because they were worshiped for their sex. One name, two types of women. Contrast.
On the nuns’ property sits the Holy Man, Phuba (Ley On). He does nothing all day but sit and pray. No one is quite sure how he maintains physical sustenance, but they know he is always there, sitting and praying. His methods and (lack of) actions are the antithesis of the nuns’. The nuns teach and heal and sew and farm and pray, all in the name of their God, while Phuba does nothing but sit and pray in the name of his God. Yet the nuns, for all of their hard work, earn little respect, while Phuba is revered by all. One common spiritual goal, two different Gods, two different methods, two different results. Contrast.
Also in contrast are the lives of the nuns and the lives of the film’s other key players. Mr. Dean is a handsome, fit, rugged man who knows his way around the land, its people, and its culture. His lifestyle is vastly different from that of the Sisters; he likes to drink, and he makes it subtly clear that he knows his way around women. He is exactly the kind of help that Sister Clodagh DOESN’T want – the kind who, for all of his practical knowledge, is the embodiment of loose morals. Farrar plays him well, ensuring that he doesn’t come off as some macho stud, but rather as a confident man, with arrogance just close enough to the surface to occasionally remind us that he could, if he wanted to, do some serious moral damage. He is also a realist, and sees religion not as “God in heaven” but as pie in the sky. Contrast.
Seventeen-year-old Kanchi (Simmons) is a sensuous young local who is entrusted to the Sisters’ care. Again, the nuns are confronted with an individual, like Mr. Dean, whose ways are vastly different from theirs. Kanchi adorns herself with nose rings and other jewelry, as well as colorful and flowing garments, and always has a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. She has no dialogue (save one scene where she cries after being whipped for suspicion of theft), but she doesn’t need dialogue. Her beauty, her suggestive dress, her seductive moves, her sly glances, and her taboo age speak volumes against the religious backdrop, and her silence adds mystery. Contrast.
But if Kanchi is a seductress, then who can she seduce in a convent full of nuns and children? Possibly Mr. Dean, although that would be too easy (and chances are if he wanted her, he would have had her long before the nuns came to town). Besides, Dean is the type of man who enjoys challenges, and bedding a 17-year-old nymph is certainly not that. Enter The Young General (Sabu), sent to St. Faith by his father to receive a formal education. The Young General looks to be in his late teens or early twenties (Sabu was about 23 at the time), and while he is a young man of affluence and respect, he has a sincere desire to study. But once under Kanchi’s spell, The Young General loses interest in the nuns’ cerebral offerings. This solidifies Kanchi’s powers of seduction. If the man who can have anything he desires with the snap of his fingers (or his father’s fingers) is seduced by her, she must be something special.
This combination of things takes its toll on the Sisters’ psyches. Symbolically, the convent’s demise starts with a small scene where Sister Briony (Judith Furse) and Sister Clodagh discuss, among other things, the red spots that have appeared on all the nuns’ bodies. The cause of the spots could be attributed to anything – bad water, infectious plant life, insect bites – but the cause is unimportant. It’s as if their entire surroundings have infected the nuns, and as is the case with many infections, this one spreads and grows, and becomes a symbol for a spiritual epidemic.
The most radical victim is Sister Ruth. Already physically ill, she does not adapt well to her surroundings, and her resentment towards her situation, the locals, and Sister Clodagh (as the scolding Sister Superior), grows worse with each passing day. Complicating matters is Sister Ruth’s attraction to Mr. Dean. At first, the attraction is merely physical; she is still young in life and in vocation, and is surely more prone to mental wanderings than the older nuns. However, when Mr. Dean pays Sister Ruth a harmless compliment, her attraction becomes an obsession. This leads to false accusations, severe jealousy, and, ultimately, madness. Byron turns up her character’s psychotic heat in perfectly measured increments, and Powell and Pressburger film her growing madness with meticulous care, using colors, shadows, and tight close-ups to their fullest potential.
Then there is poor Sister Clodagh. As a novice put in a situation an expert would be challenged by, the odds are against her success before she ever reaches the mountains. Add to that pressure all the other factors mentioned, and it only takes Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) to request a transfer due to her own wavering faith to trigger several flashbacks to the life Sister Clodagh knew before her calling – a life of fun, affluence, and romance. Not only did Sister Clodagh leave behind a comfortable secular life, she might have left it behind for the wrong reasons. Did she run TO something in her vocation or did she run FROM something in her secular life? There it is again: contrast.
While Black Narcissus is a film about nuns and challenged faith, it has no spiritual agenda; it never preaches. It is a beautiful work that shows how physical seclusion can fracture the lives of those who already live in emotional seclusion.