Today we reminisce about
Black Narcissus (1947)
Directed by Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Jean Simmons
Although I have become aware of several well-known Powell & Pressburger works, I am still largely unacquainted with their style. Thus, writing about Black Narcissus has not come easy to me and I have found it equally difficult to process the film. My first impression was quite strongly negative as I failed to understand both the story and the characters within. Watching it for a second time did help in providing me more insight but ultimately it failed to change my overall opinion, though it had more to do with the narrative than with the performances. After some reflection, I gathered that my aversion is a mainly a result of personal preference, though I gained more affection for the film after conducting some research. I will explain both aspects further in the context of the film.
The story follows several nuns from the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, located in Calcutta, who are sent to a new post where they are to inaugurate a school and hospital for local inhabitants. They have been gifted an old building and some land from the General of Mopu, a town that is approximately 8,500 feet up in the middle of the Himalayas. The building is not in great shape and has been predominantly uninhabited for several decades with the exception of housing a single caretaker by the name of Ayah. Sister Clodagh (Kerr), a young and inexperienced nun is named a Sister Superior and is to oversee the establishment, freshly coined “St. Faith”. It is unclear why the General is being so generous though it is revealed that this is not the first time that he has attempted to rehabilitate the palace, thus far unsuccessfully. An adviser to the General, a certain Mr. Dean (Farrar), tries to dissuade them from coming though to no avail. When they arrive, he dryly predicts that it will be a short time before they give up and leave.
Things start off well as people flock to St. Faith; the classrooms filled with children and the infirmary in great demand. The sisters are slightly demoralised when they find out that the General is paying people to come although this ends when he dies unexpectedly. His successor, Prince Salaam (Sabu) is very optimistic about them being there and even asks to be educated. Also amongst them is a young Indian girl, Kanchi (Simmons), who has been exiled from her community. She had previously tried to seduce Mr. Dean and now has her eyes set on the Prince. It does not take long for everyone to start acting a bit unlike their usual selves though it is worse for some than others. One of those people is Sister Ruth (Byron) who slowly gravitates towards insanity.
What is this strange atmosphere at Mopu and what ultimate toll will it take on the Sisters?
Black Narcissus received overall favourable reviews upon its release. These opinions are still maintained today and the film is highly appreciated amongst cinephiles and historians, currently placing in the 44th position on the British Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 British films. Most of the acclaim was given to the cinematography which was richly enhanced by dazzling Technicolor, making the film one the first full-length talking features made by a British studio. (It is important to note that during the Second World War, Technicolor was very hard to come by in the United Kingdom due to its cost. This goes without mentioning the difficultly in filming due to blackout obligations.) Additionally, the taboo themes of the film were labelled as being bold and groundbreaking especially in regard to entering the minds – and fantasies – of women of the Church.
The film is faithfully based on the 1939 novel of the same name authored by Margaret Rumer Godden, an English-born woman who spent a great portion of her youth living in an Indian city that is now part of Bangladesh. She completed her schooling in England and eventually decided to move back to India after finishing her studies, opening a dance school in Calcutta. The novel was written during this time, a pivotal point in her life when she had become a mother and was living in an unhappy marriage. Considering the personal challenges Godden was facing as well as her own private inclinations, it is likely that the novel was highly influenced by her own emotions. Digging a little deeper into Godden’s life, I discovered that she had a profound love for India and considered England to be a relatively foreign place, creating restless disturbances whenever she had to go back for her education. After she separated from her husband and had very little financial means, she ended up living as a poor native near Dal Lake in northern India. (It is likely that she had to spend any and all of her savings just to complete the trip which was over 2300 km. one way from Calcutta). Godden’s understanding and appreciation of India was obvious well before her eventual migration and settlement into a purer Indian way of life.
How the nuns adjust to their new surrounds is focused upon in Black Narcissus and shows some of them having problems dealing with Indian protocol especially that which is informal. For instance, Sister Honey cannot accept the diagnosis given by Sister Briony concerning an infant who has been brought to the infirmary. Sister Briony, who has a great deal of experience in the field of nursing, realises that curing the baby is beyond her means and tells the mother to go back to her people. Though she does not verbalise it, she knows the baby will die and the only peace she can offer the mother is for to get love and support from amongst her people. Sister Honey is much younger and finds Sister’s Briony’s attitude shocking, akin to abandonment. Against the consent of both Sister Clodagh and Sister Briony, Sister Honey secretly gives an ointment to the mother which is later used against them when the baby passes away. While these two women wished that the baby would be saved, only Sister Briony respected the eventual outcome of the situation and the cultural way that the death would be handled amongst the natives. In the end, Sister Honey’s good intentions are misinterpreted by the natives who find her act to have contributed to the baby’s death. She was too naïve in her British, modern world way of thinking simultaneously showing her human side in wanting to actively do something to prevent the baby’s death rather than to leave it God’s hands.
Acting as their leader, Sister Clodagh attempts to help the other Sisters in their times of need and struggle all the while enforcing her position. She is the strongest personality amongst them and is certainly the most outwardly strict. There is barely a moment in the film when a slight smile falls over her face for she generally appears very stern and without the slightest sense of humour. Privately, however, Sister Clodagh is afflicted by personal remorse she holds towards a failed romance and the comfortable life she led as a member of a wealthy Irish family. Her flashbacks are more in the tone of being fantasies from which she takes great pleasure. Despite her obviously enjoying the thought of entertaining the flesh, she does not cede to Mr. Dean when he shows an unpronounced admiration for her. She manages to remain faithful to her former love interest and to the Godly path she has chosen.
Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh flawlessly, no doubt, but I had a very hard time coming to like the character due to her cold nature with others. At the same time, I cannot help but to have admiration for a woman who is so dedicated to her cause and never questions continuing on with the task at hand. Perhaps this was a result of her ability to so efficiently contain inner desires. She chose to continue living with the ghosts of her past rather than to seek to change her current circumstances. Essentially, she was not called to become a nun from an ethereal force but rather did so to run away from her heartache. Kerr does a good job of remaining a stand-out presence in the cast, even when her image is captured in the distance of a shot. The moments in which she chooses to reveal her softer side are exact and well-chosen though they do not last very long.
Sister Clodagh was not alone in sometimes existing in a parallel universe. The groundskeeper, Ayah, heard the voice of spirits and even happily responded to them. When we first meet the (first) General, his introduction is slightly obscure as you get the impression that he himself is a ghost. It could be that Powell & Pressburger wished to give this impression to match the mysterious and somewhat unsettling ambiance of the film. Sister Philippa loses her faith and is stricken with strange behaviour, although nothing reaches the level of Sister Ruth, the one villainess of the story. She was not well before leaving for Mopu and becomes very much of a loose cannon from there.
It seems to me the idea of this story and the labelling of this film as a Technicolor Erotic Drama is a bit old-fashioned for modern day audiences. The notion of erotica is based purely on suggestion in addition to the unmasking of nuns as imperfect followers of God, things that would have been considered quite shocking subjects back in the day. Nowadays, this term has taken on a completely different meaning, usually being one of vulgarity and excessiveness. The pace of the film is nice and slow but I never felt as if there was one pivotal moment in it until the climax near the end. Had I seen this on the big screen and been able to marvel at the Technicolor, it could be that my opinion would have differed some.
There have been a few films that I have not liked even after giving them numerous tries so I shall not take my disappointment at face value. I am encouraged that Hitchcock was influenced by this film, taking elements of the script and the cinematography for at least two of his films, Sabotage and Vertigo. Since I happen to cherish Vertigo, that emotion is enough for me to want to give this film its due.