Five young British nuns are invited to move to a windy "palace", former house of the concubines of an old general, in the top of a mountain in Mopu, Himalaya, to raise the convent of Saint Faith Order, a school for children and girls, and an infirmary for the local dwellers.
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is assigned as the superior sister, and her liaison with civilization is the rude government agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar). The lonely and exotic place and the presence of Mr. 'Dean awake the innermost desires in the flesh of the sisters, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) becomes mad with the temptation
Deborah Kerr ... Sister Clodagh
Flora Robson ... Sister Philippa
Jean Simmons ... Kanchi
David Farrar ... Mr. Dean
Sabu ... The Young General
Esmond Knight ... The Old General
Kathleen Byron ... Sister Ruth
Jenny Laird ... Sister Honey
Judith Furse ... Sister Briony
May Hallatt ... Angu Ayah
Director: Michael Powell / Emeric Pressburger
Won 2 Oscars: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Cinematography (Color)
Codecs: XVid / MP3
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.
I have seen Black Narcissus in three different ways. First I saw it in a movie theater when I was 7 or 8 with my mother. I remembered it as being beautiful to look at and rather strange, and I fell in love with the idea of The Roof of The World.
I next encountered Black Narcissus as an older adult. I purchased Black Narcissus in VHS format. I devoured the film scene by scene.
The film is ravishing, spectral and profound. The idea of someone being given a trust much heavier to bare than their abilities can handle opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. The suggestion that all the nun's had lives before they became nuns and not all of them are suited to "The Life" adds depth and tension. The introduction of a bare-chested, handsome man in shorts adds lust and temptation to the mix.
One of the best characters in the film is one that no other poster has mentioned. The marvelous character actress who plays the role of Aiyah, the caretaker of "The General's House of Women." A woman who is already slightly mad when the film begins. A woman who lives in the glorious past of the place. She conjures ghosts. She casts shadows. She has a voice as harsh as a parrot's. She is priceless and wonderful in every scene, for she is not just mad, but wise. She is the key to "The House of Women".
In the Alfred Hitchcock film of Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, the mad housekeeper of Manderly, asks the new Mrs. DeWinter: "Do you believe that the dead come back to watch the living?" In Black Narcissus, the viewer gets the feeling that just around the next turn or at the top of the stairs is one of "The General's Women", watching these odd women who live without men.
A previous poster mentioned the superb sense of "place" in the film and I agree. The Palace is a player. It has a personality and a mystery of its own. So is the ever-present wind. Jack Cardiff, the genius who performed miracles with light and painted backdrops to photograph a film set in the Himalayas without ever leaving England, can't be praised highly enough.
The cast is splendid. Deborah Kerr's tortured Sister Clodagha registers every emotion, every longing, every doubt and every fear with her eyes and the set of her chin. Dame Flora Robson, better known as Elizabeth I in so many films, portrays Sister Philippa, the nun in spiritual crisis. Her, "I think it is this place. You can see too far. I think you either have to give in to it, like Mr. Dean, or leave", neatly sums up the entire film. When she can't bring herself to plant vegetables instead of the flowers she loves, she knows she MUST leave or lose herself and all she has worked for, forever. Judith Furse, the capable and sturdy Sister Brione has no such concerns. Hers is an unquestioning faith. Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, (the extra burden the Mother Superior foists on Sister Clodagha as a test of her dedication and skill at managing a small but dynamic group of women),is excellent in her demanding role as the nun who cracks.
A beautiful young Jean Simmons is sensuous as Kanchi who seduces Sabu who is very good as the young Prince, who has set himself to learn just about everything and who thinks the nun's shunning men "Isn't very nice. After all, Christ was a man..." He is named Black Narcissus by Sister Ruth.
David Ferrar as Mr. Dean may have "given in to the place" but he is still civilized enough to empathize with Sister Clodagha and resist Sister Ruth's advances. He has predicted that the nuns will last "until the rains come..."
Black Narcissus is filled with magic images and haunting echos. The "flowering of the snows" scene is breathtaking. The chapel scene frightening and tense. The "Bell" scene horrifying. The final view of "The House of Women", viewed by Sister Clodagha from the valley below is heart-stopping: A mist rises slowly and inch by inch blots out the Palace, until it is only a dream in your mind's eye. Then, a large leaf is seen. One drop falls. Then another, like tears of regret. A black umbrella is opened. Mr. Dean sits on his pony and runs his hand through his thick black hair. He had said the nuns would be gone with the first rain, and he was right.
Brian Easdale's brilliant score underlines the changing moods and the mounting terror, but never overwhelms the action.
My most recent encounter with Black Narcissus is the new Criterion DVD. The commentary and behind-the-scenes photographs and the marvelous documentary, Painting with Light, is as extraordinary as the film. It is a revelation. The sharper image doesn't bother me as much as it does a previous poster, but I do, when I have friends over to watch Black Narcissus, start with the VHS film and then put on the DVD for the special features. That way I get the best of both worlds.
If you love great films, great acting or just stunning cinematography, purchase Black Narcissus. It will haunt you forever.
* The much admired Himalayan scenery was all created in the studio (with glass shots and hanging miniatures).
* Jack Cardiff came up with the idea of starting the rainfall end scene by first having a few drops hit the rhubarb leaves before cueing a full-force rainstorm. He personally created the first drops with water from a cup when the scene was shot. Michael Powell was so pleased with the effect that he decided to make the scene, originally the penultimate one, the closing shot. Cardiff, however, was a great fan of the original scene (which had already been shot) that was supposed to follow this one and close the film. To this day Cardiff amusingly calls the opening drops of the rainfall "the worst idea I ever had".
* The backdrops were blown-up black and white photographs. The art department then gave them their breathtaking colors by using pastel chalks on top of them.
* Because of the Technicolor camera and film stock, the sets needed an astounding 800 foot-candles of light just to operate at T2.8, which was the widest lens aperture setting.