Black Narcissus (1947)

I don't think there's a universal and easy way to digest what happens in "Black Narcissus". It's not a film that lends itself easily to scrutiny or dissection; yet whose plot is so frustratingly simple it's almost like the film is teasing. My own personal like of directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger keeps me from seeing the film as it probably is. Is is anti-Catholic? Is it misogynistic? Is it racist? Probably yes, to all three; and yet so aware of what women, religion, and race are accomplishing in the picture that I can't help but think that it's not the case at all.
"Black Narcissus" is about a nunnery in India. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) has just been made Sister Superior of the newly founded St. Faith convent. Having been serving in Calcutta, Sister Clodagh moves past Darjeeling to the new St. Faith which balances on the edge of a mountain. The villagers at the bottom are under the command of a general who also owns the bit of land the new convent will be on. There is not understating the clash of culture and religion that happens at this moment. The building that becomes St. Faith was previously a harem for the old general's women. There's one woman left over (to use a more objectifying phrase) from the old general's rule and she tells the nuns that the house used to be called the "house of women". Sister Clodagh rolls her eyes at the old woman but we get the understanding that it has become that again, just with a stricter set of rules.
The convent is chilly and barren. Winds constantly blows through and the atmosphere is clean and clear. No crops seem to grow and the resident sage-figure sits next to the convent only a few hundred yards away. This is the difference in religions and cultures. Some of the old statutes from the harem are simply covered up with silk clothes which then get pulled off as the movie unravels and we begin to understand that there's something else going on here.
Mr. Dean (David Farrar) warns Sister Clodagh that this might be more than she can handle. The Sister is eager to prove her worth and isn't scared of hard work so doesn't take much of his advice. Mr. Dean lives in the village and serves as a liaison between the general and English speaking people like the nuns.
St. Faith is immediately overrun with too many people and Sister Clodagh struggles to keep her head up, particularly when she's dealing with unruly cohorts, specifically Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who seems to be becoming enamored with Mr. Dean even though she never talks to him at great length.
The general's son (Sabu), joins the list of pupils. He wants to be a learned man, straying from the warrior path his ancestors have set down before him. It is this character, who is only present on-screen for fifteen minutes or less that gives the film its title. Black Narcissus is a perfume that he wear and he explains to one of the nuns that he should not be so common as to smell like himself.
And that's in a nutshell what makes the movie so infuriatingly complex. This small smell seems to set into motion the plot that will culminate in a frenzied experience that rivals any hysteria produced in modern films. But the audience is kept out of the loop. We cannot smell this, just as we cannot experience the winds blowing through St. Faith. This air, the sisters constantly comment, is eerie and reminds them of their previous lives. Flashbacks of life before the Catholic church start to roll in and it becomes a battle between will of faith and giving in to 'temptation'.
It is unclear at the movie's ending whether or not the changes in the characters is specifically motivated by the strains of native and imposed culture/religion or whether the group of females themselves are the reason because of their tendency to be hysterical.
Whatever the answer, it's no surprise that Jack Cardiff won the Academy Award for cinemtography for "Black Narcissus" because, like his other collaborations with Pressburger and Powell, the film looks frightfully good. It is also no surprise that "Black Narcissus" didn't receive more acclaim at the time. After all, this is a movie which seems to have no reverence for religion and thus, it must be shunned.
What I'm left with afterwards is the chilling wind of St. Faith, and all these striking images floating around in my head. I don't know what to make of "Black Narcissus" and I know I don't have any definitive idea of what exactly Pressburger and Powell were trying to accomplish but I do know they made a hell of a film.

Score: ★★★★

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