Black Narcissus

Last week I went to the cinema and watched an astounding film  – Black Swan. It took me a day or so to do the review of Black Swan and since then, I’ve spent some time reading other reviews and commentaries about this film. There were a number of references about a similar ballet movie made more than sixty years ago in 1948. That film was called The Red Shoes. Directed by Michael Powell and his partner, Emeric  Pressburger, The Red Shoes, like Black Swan, started conceptually from another source.

In the case of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the source material was the Swan Lake Ballet, and Powell’s The Red Shoes movie. The Red Shoes film itself was inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale or fable of the same name. The similarities of the two films were the obsessions that drove two ballerinas, one in each film, to their deaths.

But I didn’t want to review two ballet films in a row. So I looked into the works of Powell/Pressburger and found another film that they directed that dealt with obsessions as well as external and environmental factors that made people do things which were completely contrary to what they wanted to do.

Our topic for this review is Black Narcissus, the 1947 film which starred Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jean Simmons, and Sabu.

In a nutshell, Black Narcissus is about a group of 5 Anglican nuns who are sent from a convent in Calcutta, India, to a remote place, high in the Himalayan Mountains. The local General has made a donation to the Sisters’ Order, of a palace, formerly used over the years as a home for the wives and women (concubines) of the older generals. In short, this palace, once a home for concubines, consorts and the like, would now become a nunnery.

The five sisters were to establish a religious community, the Saint Faith Order which would include a school, and a hospital for the villagers who lived in the valley below. They faced a difficult task. The palace had once been occupied by male counterparts of the nuns – a group of monks. But they had left, unable to make a go of the place.

It was located high above the valley. It was difficult to grow crops, water was always a  problem, and beyond that there was the problems of living in that high altitude, and the windiness of the draughty palace. Plus one’s grip on reality was continually lessened. It was easy to become distracted by the high mountain vistas, and the air, while always clean and fresh, contained less oxygen than the air the natives breathed far below.

There were other distractions as well. A saddhu, or holy man, sat in one spot perched slightly above the palace, seemingly always. His only activity was contemplation. His presence, while not hostile, served as an alternative for the natives, who were not sure that the ways of the Sisters, and the teachings of Christ, were in their best interests.

David Farrar as Mr. Dean

The Sisters themselves had become nuns as much as to embrace their lives of solitude, devotion, and charity, as to forget their worldly pasts. Their only contact to the secular past as well as the present was the British government’s agent for the area, a Mr. Dean who was played by David Farrar.

Dean’s proclivities seemingly embraced the pleasures of the flesh. His habitual costumes included shorts, or sleeveless shirts, or even a bare chest on occasion. So the sisters had to contend with his presence, a continual reminder of the physical world.

Jean Simmons as Kanchi

Also making her presence felt was a very young Jean Simmons. Here she has been tasked with the role of Kanchi – an available native woman of barely 18 years whose parents had sent her to the convent and the Sisters care so that she might be a taught some Christian lessons. Ms Simmons whose beauty was apparent in this film and would be far more appreciated in her later years, was suitably ‘darkened’ by the makeup department so that she might appear as an Indian girl. Some believe this was a mistake and flawed casting

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh

Deborah Kerr was just 26 when she garnered the lead role in this film. Later on, between 1950 and 1961, she would be nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role six times. In Black Narcissus, she was Sister Clodagh – the lead character, the moral center, and the prism through which we observed the other characters. As Clodagh, Kerr was the Sister Superior. This was a test of her mettle, her leadership capabilities, her devotion to the calling, as well as her proving grounds to see if she might become a Mother Superior in her later years.

So the stage is set – the Sisters arrive in this exotic and isolated place. They face the hardships of solitude, isolation, loneliness, and their devotion is soon called into question. Even the wind, the ever present wind in this high aerie, seemed to be a life force whose constant presence seemed to unhinge the Sisters. Watch for the unforgettable performance by Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth who takes the word unhinged about as far as you can.

Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth

Speaking of the stage being set – this film won two Oscars – one went to Jack Cardiff for Best Cinematography, and the other to Alfred Junge for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. This palace, set at 9000 feet, high in the Himalayan Mountains, was created and built on a sound stage in the UK. Not one part of this film was shot in India. Yet, your eyes tell you that you are high in the clear and clean air of the Himalayas. The word breathtaking easily comes to mind. But it was all created in a carpentry shop and with hand painted mattes. There’s no doubt that this is one of the most visually stunning films you will ever see. Given that this film was produced more than sixty years ago, what they accomplished visually with the available equipment and technology of those times is truly magnificent.

As the films progresses, the Sisters have to face the challenges that are both internal as well as external. Simply, this is too much for them. But you won’t see the film’s shattering and shocking climax coming until seconds before.

Black Narcissus may sound or appear to you to be a spiritual film, and you might even say that a film about nuns doesn’t interest you. Despite the fact that this film doesn’t have a so-called happy ending, and the battle over the crisis of faith is not won, you will find that this is indeed a memorable movie. Available on DVD and Blu-ray in a flawless re-mastering from the Criterion Collection, and as a rental from Netflix and Blockbuster.


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