Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Blind Spot: Black Narcissus


It is very rare that a film gets added to my all-time favourite list after just one viewing, but this is exactly where Black Narcissus ended up. I purposely waited a few weeks before watching it again to see if my initial reaction still held up. Needless to say, the film was even more glorious on repeat viewing. There is not a wrong note in the entire film. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, famously known as The Archers, Black Narcissus is a tour de force in both storytelling and acting.

Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus is a drama that explores how an isolated land in the Himalayas has an unexpected effect on five nuns. Charged with establishing a convent that will serve as both a school and hospital, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) struggles to adapt to her new role as Sister Superior while trying to navigate a foreign land. Perched upon a mountain top, the newly formed convent is situated within the walls of a palace formerly known for its sinful exploits. The presence of a local British agent, Dean (David Farrar), only complicates matter as both Sister Clodagh and the mentally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) both seem drawn to Dean’s charisma. As the altitude beings to impact the unaware nuns, memories of their lives prior to joining the nunnery start to re-surface. Blinded by their ambitions to re-shape the world around them, the nuns do not realize that some things are best left alone.


Black Narcissus is a film that is ultimately a cautionary tale about how easily routine and status can cause a person to lose sight of their true nature. Sister Clodagh is a perfect example of this as she goes from being overly prideful to longing for a love from her past. Although she is trying to teach the locals the ways of the church, Sister Clodagh seems to have forgotten what true faith is all about. At times the rougish Dean better embodies the true spirit of Christianity. In one particular scene Sister Clodagh tells a young general (Sabu) that he should not speak about Jesus in such everyday language. Dean, who shows up drunk for Christmas mass, is quick to rebuke this by telling Sister Clodagh that people should speaking the Lord’s name in common language. Implying that those who only speak of Jesus in a higher from of speech lose sight of what Jesus’ message is actually about.

Sister Clodagh and Dean are both solitary figures who clearly have feelings for one another, but neither is in a position to act on it. Once you throw the unstable Sister Ruth into the mix you have the makings of a brilliant love triangle. Unlike the frequently misguided love triangle in The Archers’ film The Red Shoes, the one Black Narcissus is executed flawlessly. Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth represent everything the other secretly wishes they were. There is a wonderful scene where Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth are having a discussion that quickly turns from pleasant to tense the minute Dean’s name is mentioned. The camera slowly moves from Sister Clodagh’s hands across the table and moves up to Sister Ruth’s angered eyes. Though a brief scene, it perfectly establishes the conflict that will arise between the two women as the film progresses.


Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron are outstanding as Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth, Byron in particular really steals the show. She presents Sister Ruth as a woman who is tired of being viewed as both crazy and inferior compared to the other nuns. However, this is in fact what she turns out to be. Though it may deem sacrilege to say, it would be interesting to see Black Narcissus remade today. Not because the film needs a reboot per say, but it is very rare to see a predominantly female driven film with characters so well defined. Even David Farrar’s Dean, who is an important character in his own right, always manages to ensure that he does not overshadow the female performances.

The only thing more breathtaking than the performances is the cinematography. From the sweeping landscapes that played a major role in Sister Clodagh’s pre-nun life to the perilous mountain top where she now resides, there is no shortage of wonderful images in the film. The beauty of the film is not just relegated to landscapes, but also how the characters utilize the spaces they inhabit. In one memorable scene a 17 year-old temptress, Kanchi (Jean Simmons), strategically uses a mirror, handkerchief, and even hides under a table to draw the attention of the young unaware general. Breathtaking in regards to visual scope and storytelling, Black Narcissus knocked me over in a way I did not expect. It is a shame more modern day films are not this glorious.



Black Narcissus is also part of our "The Must See List" series. The film was recommended by Bob

16 comments:

  1. Yeah!

    OK, that's about all I have to say, since you said the rest...So glad you liked this as much as you do. When I saw it again at Lightbox a while ago, Kurt said that as the film went on, Dean had less and less clothing...B-)

    The sexual tension in the film is astounding considering it takes place in a nunnery...

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  2. It is a very powerful film that, in a mature way, explores the behaviour of some very confused individuals. The story about nuns trying to spread the good word in a foreign land and falling prey to emotions that feel the need to repress is fantastic. Emotional confusion abounds in the film and I love that.

    And, it looks great.

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  3. Wow. I know of this film, of course, but I've never had any specific interest in seeing it over any other film. After reading this post I added the movie to my Netflix Instant queue. I'll check it out soon.

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  4. I started watching my blu-ray of this some time ago, but stopped because the GF thought she'd like to watch it with me. Well that was a while ago and I think this reviews says I need to watch it now! Thanks.

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  5. After seeing it last year, it also became one of my favorite films. I'm hoping to get the Criterion DVD once the sale happens in Barnes & Noble in July.

    I love the tension between Clodagh and Byron. Notably the latter as she goes a little nuts and wears that red dress and puts on that lipstick to push Clodagh's buttons. It's the subtlety in that scene that really wowed me.

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  6. Kathleen Byron is amazing in this, and yes, the cinematography is stunning.

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  7. @Bob - I would have loved to have seen this at The Lightbox. I am sure it looked even better on the big screen.

    As for Dean, I had not noticed that but, now that you mention it, it is rather odd that he loses so much clothing over the course of the film. I loved how Dean tried to look cool while riding a baby mule...not the manliest means of transportation.

    @Edgar - The fact that they were nuns falling prey to their emotions really added a nice layer of complexity to the film.

    @Chip Lary - I am curious to hear your thoughts on the film when you finally get around to seeing it.

    @Max - It is definitely time for you and you girlfriend to revisit the film.

    @thevoid - Absolutely loved the lipstick scene. So much tension, and temptation on Sister Clodagh's part, in that moment. I loved their conversation in that scene, one is losing grip on power and the other now has more power than she knows what to do with.

    @James - I am stunned that Byron, and the film for that matter, did not receive any Academy Award nominations. Byron gives one of the all-time great supporting turns in this film.

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  8. Wow, this post just further reminded how much I need to remedy my Powell/Pressburger blind spot. I can't wait to watch this movie.

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  9. I saw this last year - and it immediately moved into my Top 100 after that sole viewing. It was probably the best film I saw last year, actually. Stunning! Glad you dug it.

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  10. @Dave – I am slowly working on remedying my own Powell/Pressburger blind spot as well. Two film down so far and plenty more to go.

    @Andy – If I was to do a top 100 list, this one would be ranked very high.

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  11. This movie is an excellent example of why I started to watch movies on the 1001 List. I would have never picked this movie up on my own. The plot didn't interest me going in and I had low expectations despite having seen a couple of Powell/Pressburger films already.

    And boy, was I wrong! This film is dense and satisfying and still manages to surprise me with how emotionally and sexually charged it is. This is a film I never fail to recommend. Most people laugh it off and assume I'm joking. Those who don't, though always thank me for the recommendation.

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  12. @SJHoneywell - I think I will be adding the 1001 film book to my Christmas list this year. If films like this one are included then I know there will be in for a real treat.

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  13. @CS - You asked me to let you know what I thought once I had seen Black Narcissus. I'm afraid I was not as moved by it as you. I still consider it a 3 star out of 5 movie, though.

    Why wasn't I greatly moved? Well, I'm not a religious person, so I did not identify with the nuns. Also, I don't have much sympathy for someone who allows their religion to make them unhappy. If that's what it's doing to some of them, they need a new one. (The holy man up above them seemed fine with his, for instance.)

    Frankly, I was on Sister Ruth's side more than I was Sister Superior's. She knew that she needed to leave, whereas Sister Superior could not admit that she should do the same. Unfortunately, the time it took for the anniversary to renew her vows took too long to come and she lost it.

    I agree that the cinematography was beautiful. I wish the film had been made 10 years later so that it would have been in widescreen. When I first saw the shot looking down from on top of the bell I thought "Wow!" Two seconds later I thought, "Someone's going over the side of that, either by accident or on purpose."

    I would say my biggest surprise is that a movie made in 1947 that showed religion and religious followers in such a negative light did not stir up more controversy.

    Anyway, none of this is intended as a complaint about your recommendation. My apologies if it came across that way. I'm positive I would have seen the film at some point, so seeing it now just lets me check it off.

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  14. @Chip Lary – No worries, I did not take it as a complaint against my recommendation…at the end of the day we each have our own takes certain films. I was on Sister Ruth’s side as well, which is why I found her decent into madness so compelling. You could tell Sister Superior wished she had the bravery to follow Ruth’s lead, yet there was still a section of her, tied to her faith, that would not let her go through with it. I also like that the film takes an interesting stance on religion. It does not say that religion itself is a bad thing, but you should not get caught up in the procedural aspects of it. It is fascinating that in a film full of nuns, Dean is viewed as the purest form of religious belief.

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  15. I love your insight about how routine and status tries to shroud the nature of the characters. Part of what fascinates me about this film is the unmasking of this idea of the religion making people better. At their hearts, the characters still struggle with the same issues and I think it's a fascinating examination on the pratfalls of stilted and traditional religious practice.

    Plus, it's one of the most gorgeous films I've seen.

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  16. @James – Good point, James. I viewed it more as the strict policies of organized religion, and not necessarily religion itself, that does not make people better. The rules of the church only temporarily causes the nuns forget their true nature, but it does not let them erase it completely. Dean does not follow the strict regime that the nuns do and he is a vastly more spiritual person in hindsight. It is a quite daring look at the effects of religion. I love that the film opens up so many avenues for discussion.

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