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Black Narcissus

October 11, 2010

194. Black Narcissus
Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
UK, 1947
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Second viewing

Synopsis:

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is the head of a small group of Anglican nuns attempting to found an hospital and school in the Himalayas, using an abandoned building which was formerly an harem. Exotic surroundings and unreceptive locals test her resolve, as does the presence of infuriatingly casual, ruggedly handsome British agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and the narcissistic Young General (Sabu). Sister Clodagh’s mind begins to wander, remembering a romance from her past, but Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) has more a extreme reaction to her own rekindled sexuality.

Essential Scene:

Sister Clodagh patrols the corridor at night. The wind whistles through the building and drums can be heard in the distance. She listens in at each bedroom door. At the first door, she hears one of the nuns saying her prayers. At the second, the sound of weeping. The third, snoring.

She comes to the fourth door. Light can be seen through the cracks. She knocks on the door. “Sister, are you there?” The light is turned off. Concerned, Sister Clodagh tries to open the door. We see from inside that a chair is propped up against the handle. She knocks again and threatens to wake the others. The chair is pulled away and Sister Clodagh enters urgently. Inside is Sister Ruth — in a dress. Her eyes have a look of intense, feverish madness.

Sister Ruth: You can’t order me about. You have nothing to do with me anymore.

Sister Clodagh: I know what you’ve done, I know that you’ve left the Order. I only want to stop you from doing something you’ll be sorry for. Sister Philippa is going back in a few days’ time, I want to send you with her.

Sister Ruth: That’s what you would like to do — Send me back, and shut me up. That’s what you would all like to do!

Sister Ruth looks down at her dress, then back to Sister Clodagh in her habit. She accuses the other nuns of being jealous. “Especially you!”

Sister Clodagh: At least wait till the morning. Wait till the morning and I’ll wait with you.

Sister Clodagh sits at the table. Sister Ruth sits down slowly opposite her. They sit like chess opponents regarding each other warily.

Sister Ruth picks up her makeup mirror and applies bright red lipstick.

Sister Clodagh responds by picking up her Bible.

Thoughts:

Black Narcissus threatens to be boring. A staid British film from the 1940s about missionary nuns? Oh goodie! But the exotic locations (achieved entirely in-studio), implicit eroticism, mounting melodrama and Jack Cardiff’s rich Technicolor cinematography make it exceedingly compelling and not at all stuffy.

Granted, some aspects are dated; nowadays Jean Simmons would be entirely inappropriate casting for the part of an Indian girl. (But she was enchantingly beautiful…) However, “dated” isn’t always a criticism. Much of the symbolized sexuality could and would be presented more directly by modern filmmakers, but that would undermine the conflict between the Sisters’ reawakening sexuality and their denial of it for the sake of piety.

I have come to the conclusion that Black Narcissus is the sexiest film ever made about nuns — and yes, that includes certain “specialist” material.

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