Black Narcissus (1947)

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If this film was made in the ‘90s it would be about a group of intercity African Americans who go to the championships of some high school sport—say basketball. They’d be led by their coach who tells them to believe in themselves. The only problem is that you’d have to explain the snazzy misspelling of “narcissists.” I suggest Pursuit of Happyness for inspiration. All kidding asides what the film is about ends up being far more fascinating than you’d think it would be. I mean how gripping can a film about nuns be?

Perhaps that isn’t fair to nuns. Nothing says barrel of laughs than a movie about nuns, right? Well maybe not, but the premise of the film itself can’t help but be humorous: a group of nuns start up a new nunnery with school and hospital in the remote mountains of the Himalayas, housed in what once was a general’s house of pleasure. For those of you who were taught by nuns, house of pleasure means the general’s brothel. Leading this group is the order’s youngest mother superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), a strict and icy woman who is about as formal and strict as nuns come. Think Meryl Streep from Doubt but 30 years younger.

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While the film is played with all the high drama of religious seriousness, there’s an undertone and overtone to the humor. As the sisters unpack they are surrounded with luridly luscious paintings of nude women. On one wall a cross hangs just inches from a series of paintings of large breasted Indian women. Their local ambassador to the people is the general’s aid, a Mr. Dean (David Farrar). He’s constantly showing up inappropriately before the sisters usually in some state of near undress. And his comments are often both demeaning with just a subtle hint of innuendo mixed in.

This brings up that great binary opposition of pleasure vs. abstinence. You’ve got the well covered nuns high atop the mountains with nary a man in their company kneeling in prayer, working their fingers raw and devoting themselves entire to a life that seems practically void of any sensory pleasures. Even their coffee for guests is lumpy and putrid. Then you’ve got Dean, at the bottle, living a life of leisure with a man waiting on him constantly. He may or may not have taken a young girl in pleasure, but he doesn’t mind maintaining the appearance that he might of. All this serves as an underpinning to the conflict between the nuns and the local population.

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The way it’s all framed, visually, is perhaps the film’s strongest element. Given that it won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for best cinematography this shouldn’t come as a great surprise. What might be surprising is that most of the film is shot in studio yet still is able to look like it’s set upon the background of a breathtaking mountain range. The film also has a very good sense of weighing things in the frames, always keeping these nuns in balance with such masses as crosses.

Yet the most distinct element of this film is invisible but not without evidence. Throughout almost the entire film there is this wind constantly blowing in, kicking up the curtains and rolling away the dirt. It’s practically another character in the film. The nature of that force is debatable. Is it some spiritual force working on these people? Is it some demonic power of malice? Or perhaps it’s an angel of enlightenment? Perhaps it’s simply the winds of remembrance, blowing away the years of dust that these nuns have placed in their mind, covering up the memories of their lives before the order.

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As the memories come back to these nuns the films creates a fascinating character portrait of these nuns. Most of it takes place in the middle to late half of the film, as a kind of revelation that will build to the events of the third act. As we learn bits and pieces of Clodagh past it all begins to make sense and everything falls into place. The third act of this film is pretty much the most awesome place you could take a film about nuns. I mean where this third act goes would be awesome in any movie, doubly one about nuns.

Black Narcissus plays as a very dramatic film, but throws in little elements of other genres. There’s a heavy comedic undertone to the entire situation. The third act also has a very distinct feeling from an entirely different genre, one I don’t wish to spoil. Black Narcissus is not what you’d expect from a nun movie. Its setting is exotic, its situations comedic and its third act takes the film a totally unexpected and amazing direction. The only way to make a better nun movie than this is if you had another Quentin Tarantino/Uma Thurman collaboration. Seriously, it’s just that good.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Black Narcissus (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]