10 Classics to see in 2012.
Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, the head of a group of five missionary nuns; the other women are played by Kathleen Byron, Flora Robson, Jenny Laird, and Judith Furse. As the nuns work to start their school and infirmary on a windswept mountain, they find themselves battling old memories, new desires, and much more.
BLACK NARCISSUS understandably won Oscars for Jack Cardiff's Technicolor cinematography and Alfred Junge's art direction. I admired the film's very different, painterly look but felt I never quite connected with the melodramatic story, which could more jocularly be titled NUNS GONE MAD. I didn't dislike the film and found it somewhat interesting to watch, but it didn't move me; I felt as though I were watching it at somewhat of a distance, admiring this shot here or that moment there, but I was never lost in the story.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and it's interesting to note that a film they made just a couple years earlier, I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! (1945), moves me on many levels; I just rewatched it last weekend and was enchanted all over again. Both films thrust characters into new, rather mystical settings, but whereas I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! focuses on a woman finding true happiness, BLACK NARCISSUS concerns itself with bitterly unhappy women whose attempts at meaningful work lead instead to death and failure.
Sister Clodagh was, in fact, the only character provided with enough back story to understand her and her motivations. Crazy Sister Ruth (Byron) is "ill" from the very beginning, with no explanation, and I thus found her more annoying than anything else. Similarly, Sister Philippa (Robson) has a troubled past, which is never explained in the least. So the viewer is confronted with two depressed women, one of whom inexplicably plants flowers in the vegetable garden and the other who fancies herself in love with the only eligible man for miles (David Farrar). Whatever.
Far more interesting for me were Sabu as the "Young General," who is distracted from his desire for an education by the flirtatious Kanchi (a teenaged Jean Simmons). The Young General's character provided a touch of needed levity, and though Simmons' scenes were limited, she makes enough of an impact that both she and the Young General seemed more rounded and "real" than the overly dramatic Sisters Ruth and Philippa.
I did appreciate the maturity of the film's script and acting, insofar as some fairly adult "discussions" take place with implied but unspoken dialogue, the meaning instead conveyed through looks or sentences left hanging in the air. I admire when a film can be understood on different levels depending on the age and knowledge of the viewer.
BLACK NARCISSUS was based on a novel by Rumer Godden.
I watched a 2001 DVD release from the Criterion Collection. Criterion reissued the film in 2010. The DVD can be rented from Netflix, which also has the movie available for streaming.
This title has also had a release on VHS.
Four films are now left to go in order to complete viewing this year's "10 Classics" list!