Cinematic Heaven: Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus | Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947

No matter who you are, how much power you have, who you know, at the end of the day we are only human and are susceptible to every emotion that humans have. Jealousies, rage, temptation, love, we all feel them at some point or another, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. This is the recurring theme of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s (other) masterpiece, Black Narcissus. This time, this theme is told through the eyes of a group of nuns who are setting up a convent in the Himalayas. In addition to being about the human condition, the movie also takes on the desire that a person, country, or religion has on controlling everyone around them, and the consequences that such desires bring forth.

Black Narcissus, based on a novel by Rumer Godden, is the story of a group of nuns who are sent to a village in the Himalayas to establish a new school and hospital. The group is led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who was promoted to Sister Superion as this task was assigned. With her are a diverse cast of nuns who specialize in something, among them in Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who has been very sick and who doubts whether or not she should be a nun. And so they head towards the Himalayas unaware of what awaited for them there.

Once they get there, they are received by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a rough and crude man who works for the leader of the village. He treats the nuns as if they were regular women, which doesn’t sit well with Sister Clodagh, but awakens something in her that she has not felt in many years. Him, along the with culture, the arrival of a young general, and of a young girl that can’t hold back her feelings, makes the nuns pretty much go mad, especially Sister Ruth. It all leads to one of the most intense finales of any movie I’ve ever seen.

Like The Red Shoes, this movie is absolutely beautiful in just about every department, starting with the story and the screenplay. The story tell us that we are all just human no matter how try we try to distance our selves from the desire that plagues our race. And the scripts translates that concept perfectly. And of course, the direction had to be equally fantastic for it work, and it is. The three things makes this not only great, but one of the most sexual films ever, even though there is not even a kiss to be seen.

The performances, need I say, are equally great. Deborah Kerr is sooooo good as Sister Clodagh. She is cold and restrained, but we can see the fire burning in her. Sister Ruth, is the opposite,  with her trying to restrain herself, but to no avail, and Kathleen Byron is great at this. She is probably the creepiest nun I’ve ever seen on film (I know there are worse movie nuns out there, but I do not want to go to there). David Farrar is as charming and rough as he needs to be, and I actually believe that the nuns would fall for him. These are the most noteworthy performances, but everyone’s work is good

And finally, the techs. Jack Cardiff won an Oscar for his cinematography, and it is well deserved. The movie could not be shot in the Himalayas for obvious reasons, but his lensing makes everything look so natural, as if it was actually shot there. The only thing that kept me from believing it was shot on location is that the backgrounds do look fake, especially in high definition. And the sets are equally amazing by bringing authenticity to the picture (art director Alfred Junge also won an Oscar for his work here).

Black Narcissus is pure perfection. You don’t see this kind of movie being made anymore, so thank goodness Powell and Pressburger had the sense to make it while it was still plausible (but still controversial).


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