Black Narcissus (1947)

Exotic locales (amazingly shot on soundstages) and erotic tension drive this extraordinary Powell and Pressburger Technicolor masterwork about cloistered nuns trying to set up a convent in the Himalayas to help the locals.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Review #2,267

Dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
1947 | UK | Drama | 101 mins | 1.33:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be PG13 for some sexual references and mature theme

Cast: Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron
Plot: A group of nuns struggle to establish a convent in the Himalayas, while isolation, extreme weather, altitude, and culture clashes all conspire to drive the well-intentioned missionaries mad.
Awards: Won 2 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration
Source: ITV Global Entertainment

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Religion, Desires
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

An absolute gem of a film, Black Narcissus was part of a string of extraordinary successes produced by The Archers back in the 1940s, with pictures such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). 

Power directing duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger team up once again with Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar here for Best Cinematography) to film a story based on Rumer Godden’s novel about a few cloistered nuns assigned to the Himalayas to set up a convent to help the poor and uneducated locals. 

Godden reportedly didn’t like the film, though she later worked as screenwriter on a film adaptation of another of her work with Jean Renoir in The River (1951), which like Black Narcissus was shot in resplendent Technicolor. 

The cast is excellent, particularly Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, the nun in-charge, and Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, both of whom are hiding varying degrees of repressed desires. 

“Remember, the superior of all is the servant of all.”

It’s a very earthy film despite the religious purity ascribed by the Sisters, yet there is enough subtle hints of erotic tension peppered throughout that makes Black Narcissus indelibly compelling, perhaps even cheekily taboo considering this was made nearly 75 years ago. 

The fact that the vacant palace that the nuns find themselves in was previously a brothel of sorts where women were kept at men’s behest (subtly hinted through mise-en-scene) suggests an inviting space where spirituality and sin could occur at the same time, a foreshadowing of what might lie ahead. 

The exotic locales were amazingly shot on soundstages, against matte paintings of the vast mountainous region.  Perhaps the most unforgettable matte shot in Black Narcissus is one that is most vertigo-inducing as a nun rings a large bell at dawn, just centimetres from what would surely be a long plummet to certain death.

Grade: A




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