Black Narcissus

Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Screenplay: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden)
Stars: Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Sabu (Dilip Rai), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Esmond Knight (General Toda Rai), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1947
Country: U.K.
Black Narcissus Criterion Collection DVD
Black NarcissusThere are precious few films that have the incredible sense of place that pervades every frame of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, although the ultimate irony is that all of its locations are studio set fabrications whose artifice is never entirely transparent. Set on a high mountain peak in the Indian Himalayas where a group of Anglican nuns are fighting against both the physical elements and the own inner spiritual dilemmas while attempting to establish a school and hospital, Black Narcissus is a film in which location is important not only in terms of narrative, but in terms of theme and symbolism. The location is, in and of itself, a character to be reckoned with.

The school and hospital are to be established at the enormous Palace of Mopu, which stands 8,000 feet in the mountains at the edge of a sheer rock face above lush forests. Mopu was once called “The House of Women,” as it was originally built for a local ruler to keep his private harem, and the many erotic paintings that adorn the aged walls are testament to the carnal pleasures that once took place there. In an attempt to erase this past, the determined nuns from the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcultta, who have been given the palace by the Indian General Toda Rai (Esmond Knight), rename it the House of St. Faith and set about turning it into a place of Christian worship and discipline.

Yet, as the film makes clear, walls have memories. In fact, memory is one of the most striking themes throughout Black Narcissus, as it becomes the avenue through which ideals are shattered and dreams disillusioned. The memories of the sensuality that once took place within the walls of St. Faith are not removed by taking down the erotic paintings and replacing them with crucifixes. Rather, they linger on, infecting the nuns as they go about their work, bringing up memories of their previous lives before they dedicated themselves to God. When one nun confesses that she is losing her faith as her mind turns more and more to the life she left 21 years earlier, another nun tells her to throw herself into her work in order to drown out the memories. The camera then cuts to a lingering close-up of the nun’s callused, overworked hands, suggesting that these reemerging memories are simply too strong to be repressed.

American actress Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity, The King & I), who at the time was under contract with MGM, stars as Sister Clodagh, the young nun who is put in charge of St. Faith even though her superior in Calcutta does not think she is ready for the responsibility. Sister Clodagh becomes determined to prove herself by making St. Faith a success, even though similar attempts have failed in the past. She is met with open cynicism and casual mockery by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the British agent in charge of the region in India in which St. Faith is located (the film is set in the last few years in which India was a British colony; in fact, 1947, the year Black Narcissus was released, was the same year India finally won its independence). Mr. Dean, who professes no faith of any kind, seems to get a kick out of dropping sexual innuendo around the nuns (especially Sister Clodagh) and slyly phrasing questions to suggest that they desire the sexuality they cannot have.

Naturally, Sister Clodagh is frustrated by Mr. Dean’s behavior. Yet, at the same time, there is a palpable flirtation in their banter, and it isn’t long before Sister Clodagh’s own memories come to the forefront of her mind, as she begins to lose herself during prayer in vivid memories of her previous life in Ireland. It seems that the influence of St. Faith/Mopu is even too strong to be resisted by the one woman who has the most desire to see it successfully changed. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), on the other hand, seems to give herself willingly to the palace’s influence. She is established as “trouble” from the beginning, and the numerous close-ups of her intense eyes and sly smile suggest that the chastity of a nun’s life is not for her. Eventually, her desire for the lusty Mr. Dean sets off a melodramatic chain of events that results in attempted murder, death, and the final collapse of any hope of maintaining St. Faith.

While the thematic elements of desire and the constant battle between the spirit and the flesh are intricate elements of Black Narcissus (although, notably, they were not central to Rumer Godden’s 1939 source novel, which is perhaps why she despised the film so much), it will probably be best remembered for its impressive visuals. Shot in glorious three-strip Technicolor by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his efforts, Black Narcissus is a visually sumptuous film that matches its thematic sensuality with a stream of images of such powerful beauty that they can hardly be contained by the screen. The soft white habits of the nuns are offset by a plethora of exotic colors that fill the screen, from the brightly colored clothing of the local villagers, to the expansive blue skies, to the lush green forests.

Even more impressive is the fact that almost the entire film was shot on soundstages at Pinewood Studios (the few “location” shots were done just outside the studio in England; not a single frame was shot in India). One could not imagine that filmmakers could recreate the vast, rugged beauty of the Himalayas in a studio, but that is exactly what Powell and Pressburger, working with production designer Alfred Junge (who also won an Oscar for his work here), achieved. The extreme physical world in which the film takes place comes alive via sheer artifice: a virtually seamless combination of expansive sets, detailed miniatures, and impeccable matte paintings on glass (by Peter Ellenshaw). The most impressive shots are extreme high angles looking down at characters as they ring a large bell that is at the very edge of a sheer cliff dropping hundreds of feet into the forest (this is the spot where the over-the-top climax, which feels like it was ripped from a horror movie, takes place).

Of course, if it were only the technical aspects of the film that were worthy of praise, it would be a beautiful, but ultimately empty cinematic exercise. Instead, Powell and Pressburger (who co-directed 14 films together between 1942 and 1956) add their humanistic touch to a story that could have easily lent itself to simplicity and lewdness (after all, when one thinks of “nuns” and “lust” together in the same film, the trite erotic silliness of Ken Russell usually comes to mind). While Black Narcissus ran into trouble with the Catholic Church over its depiction of nuns falling prey to physical desire, the film is never wanton in its depictions. Granted, the story as a whole is strong with sensual overtones and sometimes overt sexuality, but it is ultimately about decent, naturally flawed human characters who constantly find themselves in a battle of wills between their physical desires and the spiritual urge to maintain purity.

Black Narcissus Criterion Collection DVD
Black Narcissus is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray (SRP $39.95).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 surround
  • Audio commentary with co-director Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese
  • Video introduction by Bertrand Tavernier
  • “The Audacious Adventurer” featurette
  • “Profile of Black Narcissus” feaurette
  • “Painting With Light” featurette
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by film critic Kent Jones
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 20, 2010

    Criterion’s original DVD release of Black Narcissus looked quite wonderful to my eyes back in 2001, but nearly a decade of time and the release of this new, remastered release has made clear many of its deficiencies, particularly chroma error, softness, and lack of contrast. Those problems have been powerfully remedied here in this new high-definition transfer, which was made from a newly printed 35mm interpositive. Colors are much improved, and while they will never reach the gaudy heights of true three-strip Technicolor, they still look impressive in their intense hues and deep saturation. Contrast is much improved, resulting in darker blacks, better shadow detail, and all-around heightened clarity. The digitally restored Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack, which was mastered at 24-bit from the original optical tracks, also sounds excellent and marks an improvement over the previously available disc. Although still limited in range, the soundtrack boasts a notable amount of depth and clarity. Ambient noise such as the constantly howling wind is well rendered, and Brian Easdale’s expansive orchestral score, parts of which were composed before the film was even shot, sounds clear and maintains good fidelity.
    Criterion’s re-release of Black Narcissus maintains virtually all of the supplements included on the 2001 DVD, with the exception of an extensive black-and-white photo archive of production stills, behind-the-scenes photographs, and deleted shots, and also adds two new supplements from previously available European DVD releases. From the initial Criterion DVD we have a screen-specific audio commentary with co-director Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese, an avid fan of Powell’s work, that was originally included on the 1988 Criterion laser disc. The commentary is a real treasure because Powell, who was 83 at the time of its recording, died only two years later, so it stands as one of the last times he was documented discussing his work in-depth. Powell and Scorsese were recorded separately and edited together into a seamless track that covers all aspects of the film’s production. Powell does most of the talking, with Scorsese interjecting comments from time to time, and while there are some long stretches of silence, it is worth a listen. Also from the previous DVD is the original theatrical trailer and “Painting With Light,” a 27-minute documentary about cinematographer Jack Cardiff and his work on Black Narcissus. The documentary was directed by London-based filmmaker Craig McCall, whose Peristence of Vision was a feature-length study of Cardiff’s work. “Painting With Light” is a good introduction to the difficulties and rewards of working with the Technicolor process, and it includes interviews with Scorsese, Thelma Schoomaker-Powell (Oscar-winning editor and Powell’s wife), Kathleen Byron (who played Sister Ruth), and Cardiff himself, who discusses his love of painting and how he tried to emulate the expressive styles of Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt on film.

    New for Region 1 viewers is an 8-minute audio introduction over still images by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier that was originally recorded for the Institut Lumière in 2006. Tavernier, who was good friends with Michael Powell, also appears in the 18-minute featurette “The Audacious Adventurer” from 2005, in which he elaborates more on the film and his relationship with the director. Finally, we have “Profile of Black Narcissus,” a 27-minute retrospective documentary from 2000 about the film’s production and its legacy. It features interviews with Jack Cardiff, Kathleen Byron, film historian Ian Christie, and assistant editor Noreen Ackland, who later edited Powell’s controversial Peeping Tom (1960).

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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