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
Human struggle defeated by place in a beautiful film
A small group of nuns, working nuns, not contemplatives, journey to the Himalayas to establish a school and dispensary in a high and remote deserted palace. It was a palace built for a ruler's women, and every wall painting, every decoration, contrasts the sensuality of this society with the chaste and energetic vocation of the nuns. Only Dean (David Farrar), the ruling General's Agent, links the steamy life of the valley with the wind-blown austerity of the nunnery above.
It is the destructive power of emotions reppressed and released that is most obvious in 'Black Narcissus', but more fundamental to this beautiful film is a stronger, yet quieter, ancient and more subtle power, that of place. The Himalayan setting is established surprisingly convincingly for the period, in a series of vivid shots that disclose the fact of that landscape's power from the beginning. And the particular quality, the particular power of that place is continuously present in the wind that blows constantly, stirring every fabric, every soft thing. Only as that power of place begins to work its insidious magic on the nuns does it begin to reveal its nature. Everyone there is affected, their practical efforts diverted by poetry and passion. Somehow flowers are planted, not potatoes. The Young General (Sabu) falls in love with a dancing girl (Jean Simmons). Two of the nuns are drawn to the rough Agent, already sunk into the life of the society around him. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the Sister Superior, initially drawn back to memories of her lover in Ireland, remains strong in her faith, yet is softened, becomes more human. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), on the other hand, becomes maddened by jealous passion and it is her tragedy, itself peculiarly bound up with the geography of the place, that brings the drama to an end.
The testing of a few people brought together in isolation is a familiar theme, but this is an unusual example. 'Black Narcissus' has an unusual symmetry: acceptance of this tainted life, in the person of the agent, is compared with the surrender to her passions of Sister Ruth, whose irrational passion, in turn, contrasts with the gentle loves of the Sister Clodagh; the abandonment of this world by the holy contemplative who lives in the nunnery grounds contrasts with the nun's holy yet practical struggles. So, too, we see the valley richly coloured, but the Mopu Palace nunnery almost monochrome, washed out.
The project at Mopu fails, the struggle against the genius of the place is abandoned. But not everything fails: Sister Clodagh has become wiser and less proud. Some struggles are too great, but we learn that there can be victories in small things: the Young General wins Kanchi, his dancing girl.
This is a fine film, well acted. David Farrar, though at times uneasy in a difficult role, requiring roughness and sympathy in equal measure, generally manages to strike the right balance. Kathleen Byron grows convincingly mad with jealousy and is stupendous in her dramatic final scene. Flora Robson, as Sister Phillipa, tending her gardens, has a small part which she plays to perfection. Deborah Kerr is outstanding: that Sister Clodagh has a fundamental sympathy disguised by pride is apparent from the beginning, and the progressive disclose of the quiet, loving, passion of her character, is finely judged. The art direction and cinematography, too, is excellent: the wind tugging at every fabric, the sputtering candles, the long shots of the landscape, Sister L pausing momentarily to caress a strikingly phallic baluster. It is astonishing that this was all achieved without leaving the suburbs of London. The music is ravishing and, in the later scenes, intense. Finally, in its emphasis on the spirit of place, even set in the Himalayas, 'Black Narcissus' is a very British film.
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