Saturday, November 17, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Black Narcissus (1947)

BLACK NARCISSUS, the story of nuns struggling to establish a convent high in the Himalayas, was No. 6 on my list of 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.

BLACK NARCISSUS was written and directed by 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.

Deborah Kerr, as the rigid Mother Superior, ultimately proves to be among the film's most sympathetic characters, as her past life is gradually revealed in flashbacks. The flashback shots of redheaded Kerr trying on her grandmother's emeralds was for me the highlight of the film, surely one of the most beautiful scenes ever filmed. The gradual "painting" of the true character of Kerr's Sister Clodagh was intriguing enough to keep me watching, despite my overall dissatisfaction with the film's story.

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!

7 Comments:

Blogger Lasso The Movies said...

I must say that you have me questioning myself here. I have always loved this movie, and although the aesthetics have always been the main reason, I remember being sucked into their world as well. Of course it has been years since I watched Black Narcissus, but perhaps it's time to pull it out again. Thanks for the inspiration.
-Paul

7:48 AM  
Blogger silverscreenings said...

I've always appreciated this film but have never loved it... I loved your re-title "NUNS GONE MAD"!

11:50 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Paul, I can easily see this being a movie which "works" for some people and not for others; there's a lot to admire, even though I just didn't connect with it emotionally. Being an optimist at heart, the positive power of the same filmmakers' I KNOW WHERE I'M GOING! works much better for me. I'll be interested to hear your opinion on a fresh viewing!

Glad you appreciated my sense of humor, Silver Screenings! That's a good way to describe it, appreciating but not loving the film. I was glad I saw it but don't think it's anything I'll especially want to revisit in the future.

Best wishes,
Laura

12:20 PM  
Blogger dfordoom said...

It is a truly stunning film visually, and amazingly done entirely in the studio.

3:55 PM  
Blogger SimpleGifts said...

Ah, "painterly look" is the term I've been trying to think of whenever watching this film! I like the film very much but then I love Rumer Godden's novels. And her two volume autobiography is a fascinating account of growing up in India and later struggling as a writer while raising her children on her own. BLACK NARCISSUS was her first successful novel. Thank your for giving the film a try. - Jane

10:39 PM  
Blogger Michele B. said...

While I've never read Black Narcissus nor seen the movie, one of my favorite novels of all time is also by Rumer Godden, also about nuns - In This House of Brede, about a cloistered abbey of Benedictine nuns. Since the main character is also named Sister Philippa, who has a mysterious past, I wonder if the one in this book/movie is an early take on her. Who would have thought that a tale of women who have renounced the outside world would be so fascinating - I definitely recommend the book to you. However, I'd avoid the TV movie based on the novel starring Diana Rigg, which loses much in the translation.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I love all this feedback!

Jane and Michele, knowing both of you I think you would really enjoy it if you ever had the chance to meet. :) That's fascinating about Sister Philippa, Michele! I've heard the title IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE but never read or seen it.

Best wishes,
Laura

9:42 PM  

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