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 Clodah is dispatched with four other nuns to establish a new convent far in the Himalayas. It's a difficult journey and their new house is a ramshackle old building on the edge of a cliff that had been abandoned by a religious Brotherhood many years before. They soon establish a school and an infirmary though the local General's agent, Mr. Dean, warns them against treating the deathly ill as they would no doubt be blamed if the patient doesn't recover. The location, the culture and the mountain air all begin to have a strange effect on the Sisters. Sister Clodagh, who is also on her first assignment as Sister Superior, begins to remember a romance she had as a young woman before entering the sisterhood. Another however, becomes obsessed with Mr. Dean, which leads to tragedy. Written by
St Faith (Sainte Foy in French, Santa Fe in Spanish) is supposedly a French martyr executed at Agen in Gaul (France) during the period when Diocletian was persecuting the Christians. She was tortured to death in a red-hot brazier. Her shrine is at Conques, France. See more »
(at around 1h 35 mins) Sister Ruth picks up Mr. Dean's pipe, which is 'smoking', from an ashtray. She walks away, still holding the pipe, and the ashtray continues to emitting trails of smoke. See more »
The idea of one individual's inner conflicts within an organized religious group is not necessarily a new concept in story telling. Depending on the talents of the artists involved, and usually the stellar performance of one individual, the results can be quite good, and at times extraordinary.
Now, take that premise and reverse it. What happens when you have an entire group of individuals, who, for some reason beyond their understanding, begin to question their faith, vows, and purpose in life? You have the film Black Narcissus.
A group of Anglican nuns led by Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodah are sent to the Himalaya Mountains to create a school and hospital from an abandoned palace. The palace was once called "The House of Women" and is rather ornately decorated with erotic art. In the opening scenes, we are told that an order of Brothers had attempted to do the same thing as the Sisters, but failed.
Sister Clodah obviously enjoys the fact that she has been chosen, and also enjoys being in charge. Not long after the nun's arrival their "straight-laced" behavior begins to loosen, their discipline becomes more lax, and the foundation of their self-image begins to change.
Deborah Kerr is wonderful as Sister Clodah. There's more to her character than immediately meets the eye. David Farrar as Mr. Dean, Flora Robson as Sister Philippa, Sabu as The Young General, and Jean Simmons as Kanchi are a superb acting ensemble. However it is Kathleen Byron as the emotionally disturbed Sister Ruth that you will remember the most after viewing this film.
The extraordinary performances in this film are complimented visually with the flawless cinematography by Jack Cardiff. This is one of the most beautifully composed color films I have ever seen. I did not know that this film was shot entirely in a studio until after I had seen it several times. Some of the matte shots are extremely realistic, and others look more like beautiful paintings. All this serves to reinforce the struggle between illusion and reality, and also passion and chastity.
Brian Easdale's musical score is extremely effective, and his use of a wordless chorus is fascinating -- whether they are singing an Irish folk-like song or an Indian chant. In the climactic scene, there is over 10 minutes of film time when not a single word is spoken; just the chorus and orchestra.
Black Narcissus brings home the point that we are all sometimes far too ambitious, vulnerable, obstinate, passionate, and alas, human.
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