After opening a convent in the Himalayas, five nuns encounter conflict and tension - both with the natives and also within their own group - as they attempt to adapt to their remote, exotic surroundings.
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Sister Clodagh, currently posted at the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta, has just been appointed the Sister Superior of the St. Faith convent, making her the youngest sister superior in the order. The appointment is despite the reservations of the Reverend Mother who believes Sister Clodagh not ready for such an assignment, especially because of its isolated location. The convent will be a new one located in the mountainside Palace of Mopu in the Himalayas, and is only possible through the donation by General Todo Rai of Mopu - "The Old General" - of the palace, where the Old General's father formerly kept his concubine. On the Old General's directive, the convent is to provide schooling to the children and young women, and general dispensary services to all native residents who live in the valley below the palace. Accompanying Sister Clodagh will be four of the other nuns, each chosen for a specific reason: Sister Briony for her strength, Sister Phillipa who ... Written by
Black Narcissus is a story of ghosts, wind, faith, frustration, sexual tension and madness.
I have seen Black Narcissus in three different ways. First I saw it in a movie theater when I was 7 or 8 with my mother. I remembered it as being beautiful to look at and rather strange, and I fell in love with the idea of The Roof of The World.
I next encountered Black Narcissus as an older adult. I purchased Black Narcissus in VHS format. I devoured the film scene by scene.
The film is ravishing, spectral and profound. The idea of someone being given a trust much heavier to bare than their abilities can handle opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. The suggestion that all the nun's had lives before they became nuns and not all of them are suited to "The Life" adds depth and tension. The introduction of a bare-chested, handsome man in shorts adds lust and temptation to the mix.
One of the best characters in the film is one that no other poster has mentioned. The marvelous character actress who plays the role of Aiyah, the caretaker of "The General's House of Women." A woman who is already slightly mad when the film begins. A woman who lives in the glorious past of the place. She conjures ghosts. She casts shadows. She has a voice as harsh as a parrot's. She is priceless and wonderful in every scene, for she is not just mad, but wise. She is the key to "The House of Women".
In the Alfred Hitchcock film of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, the mad housekeeper of Manderly, asks the new Mrs. DeWinter: "Do you believe that the dead come back to watch the living?" In Black Narcissus, the viewer gets the feeling that just around the next turn or at the top of the stairs is one of "The General's Women", watching these odd women who live without men.
A previous poster mentioned the superb sense of "place" in the film and I agree. The Palace is a player. It has a personality and a mystery of its own. So is the ever-present wind. Jack Cardiff, the genius who performed miracles with light and painted backdrops to photograph a film set in the Himalayas without ever leaving England, can't be praised highly enough.
The cast is splendid. Deborah Kerr's tortured Sister Clodagha registers every emotion, every longing, every doubt and every fear with her eyes and the set of her chin. Dame Flora Robson, better known as Elizabeth I in so many films, portrays Sister Philippa, the nun in spiritual crisis. Her, "I think it is this place. You can see too far. I think you either have to give in to it, like Mr. Dean, or leave", neatly sums up the entire film. When she can't bring herself to plant vegetables instead of the flowers she loves, she knows she MUST leave or lose herself and all she has worked for, forever. Judith Furse, the capable and sturdy Sister Brione has no such concerns. Hers is an unquestioning faith. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, (the extra burden the Mother Superior foists on Sister Clodagha as a test of her dedication and skill at managing a small but dynamic group of women),is excellent in her demanding role as the nun who cracks.
A beautiful young Jean Simmons is sensuous as Kanchi who seduces Sabu who is very good as the young Prince, who has set himself to learn just about everything and who thinks the nun's shunning men "Isn't very nice. After all, Christ was a man..." He is named Black Narcissus by Sister Ruth.
David Ferrar as Mr. Dean may have "given in to the place" but he is still civilized enough to empathize with Sister Clodagha and resist Sister Ruth's advances. He has predicted that the nuns will last "until the rains come..."
Black Narcissus is filled with magic images and haunting echos. The "flowering of the snows" scene is breathtaking. The chapel scene frightening and tense. The "Bell" scene horrifying. The final view of "The House of Women", viewed by Sister Clodagha from the valley below is heart-stopping: A mist rises slowly and inch by inch blots out the Palace, until it is only a dream in your mind's eye. Then, a large leaf is seen. One drop falls. Then another, like tears of regret. A black umbrella is opened. Mr. Dean sits on his pony and runs his hand through his thick black hair. He had said the nuns would be gone with the first rain, and he was right.
Brian Easdale's brilliant score underlines the changing moods and the mounting terror, but never overwhelms the action.
My most recent encounter with Black Narcissus is the new Criterion DVD. The commentary and behind-the-scenes photographs and the marvelous documentary, Painting with Light, is as extraordinary as the film. It is a revelation. The sharper image doesn't bother me as much as it does a previous poster, but I do, when I have friends over to watch Black Narcissus, start with the VHS film and then put on the DVD for the special features. That way I get the best of both worlds.
If you love great films, great acting or just stunning cinematography, purchase Black Narcissus. It will haunt you forever.
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