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.
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 concubines. 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
Jack Cardiff drew inspiration for his shots from the great painters; he experimented with the tones of Van Gogh, for example, or the reds and greens from Rembrandt. In her British Film Guide book on Black Narcissus, Sarah Smith quotes Cardiff, who explained the influence of Vermeer and Caravaggio: "They both lit with very simple light. Many painters did, but with Vermeer and Caravaggio you were very conscious of it; they really used the shadows. Caravaggio would just have one sweeping light over everything so that you were aware of the single light." The resulting lighting was unusual for Technicolor films of the time, and initially caused concern for Technicolor consultant Natalie Kalmus. She grew to appreciate the look Cardiff was creating once she saw the initial rushes, however. See more »
An Australian kookaburra is heard laughing in a bamboo forest in the Himalayan foothills. 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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