Sunday, March 15, 2009

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus - Criterion Collection

Black Narcissus is about the clash of east with west, of Christianity with paganism, of celibacy with carnal desire. It is about how sometimes in failure and humiliation, there is triumph. Proud Sister Clodagh fails at everything she undertakes, but she achieves priceless self-knowledge and compassion for human weakness. Based upon the novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus tells the many-layered tale of five English nuns, the Servants of Mary, who try to start a school and hospital high in the Himalayas. The convent is in an old palace which was built to house the harem of a prince. Although the nuns attempt to sanctify the place with their prayers and good works, the preternatural elements which linger upon the mountain peaks begin to torment them. Their personality flaws and weaknesses are exaggerated to an unbearable degree.

Deborah Kerr gives a riveting performance as Sister Clodagh; one can see the dueling passions under the serene exterior. Although her mission becomes a disaster, she resists temptation and, by trying to be faithful, she wins the regard of a man whose heart she will take with her. David Ferrar is Mr. Dean, the local British agent, who through his encounter with the nuns finds his own soul. Jean Simmons is beguiling as the village slut, embodying the primitive eroticism of the locale; when she begins to dance for Sabu it is clear that he does not have a chance. Kathleen Byron is both horrifying and marvelous as the insane nun; it is disturbing to watch her sink into evil and neurosis through untamed lust. Her transformation from Bride of Christ into thwarted and vengeful seductress is one of the most frightening in classic filmdom.

According to DVDTimes:
Every single frame of Black Narcissus is a thing of exquisite beauty....the expressionistic look and feel of every scene also serves a definite purpose, supporting the heightened emotions, the inner desires and the torment of each of the nuns. The weather and the seasons play a huge part in this - the constant blowing of the wind, ruffling the flowing robes of the nuns, conveying the constant unease of their situation, while the frigid coldness of the winter giving way to the passionate feverish heat of the summer represents the journey the nuns undergo and the limits to what their delicately balanced constitution and mental health can bear.... “I think there are only two ways of living in this place”, Flora Robson’s Sister Philippa observes, “live like Mr Dean or the Holy Man – ignore it or give yourself up to it”.

Outwardly however - other than the difficulties she has to endure in managing the problems the other nuns encounter - the Palace of Mopu seems to have little effect on Sister Clodagh’s personality, who is consequently the more complex and most interesting character in the film. Superbly underplayed by Deborah Kerr, her asceticism a marked contrast to the madness and exoticism around her.... Despite her best efforts however, Sister Clodagh must inevitably fail against the powerful primeval passions that are unlocked in such a fantastical place, but perhaps she gains something more important - a greater awareness of her own humanity.
Black Narcissus is a masterpiece of acting, directing, cinematography and screenplay. Every frame is a work of art, conveying the sense of the height to which the nuns have climbed and the depth into which it is possible to fall. The film explores every aspect human weakness while always maintaining an overwhelming aura of the transcendent. Share


Anonymous said...

I simply MUST see this film! Does it ever come on the classic film networks?

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, they occasionally show it on TCM. It is a MUST SEE, especially for any westerner who has ever lived in India!

Anonymous said...

Call me a crank, but I found it overacted and tediously overdone. I dearly love Rumer Godden, but I had to force myself to finish it (after the rest of the family bailed quite early).

elena maria vidal said...

I would never call you a crank, gsk. I love the film but everybody can't like all the same things! A lot my friends just can't get into some of the old films, and that's fine. Your poor family; I can just see them bailing out!!

Aron said...

Hi Elena,
I actually really like the older films; I get really tired of the in-your-face sexuality of modern films and tv. I just don't see the point...Not that I have anything against movie and TV of today, but it seems so seldom that it advances the plot, but just thrown in because the directors can do it. (LOL, I sound like such a curmudgeon! And I am only in my early '30s!) However, I have to watch BN one of these days, it sounds pretty good.

R J said...

I was amazed to learn that Kathleen Byron lived until 2009, never, it would seem, having subsequently surpassed or even matched her unforgettable portrayal of Sister Ruth. The scene where she is suddenly shown wearing a dark red figure-hugging dress in her cell is, in the context of the movie's plot, more frightening than a half-dozen fill-the-screen-with-corpses slasher pix could ever be.

elena maria vidal said...

I agree, RJ, I think that the portrayal of the fallen nun is brilliant, as is the entire movie. Watching it again last night I was struck by what a masterpiece it is.