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Review: Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directed by: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Premise: Adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden. A group of nuns opens a new convent in the Himalayas. As they set up a school and a dispensary in an unfamiliar place, the nuns struggle with temptation.

What Works: There is a small niche of movies about the lives of nuns and they run the gamut between works of reverence like The Bells of St. Mary’s and outright acts of provocation like The Little Hours. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 drama Black Narcissus exists somewhere between those extremes. At the time of its release, and even now, Black Narcissus could be provocative or even upsetting to a certain kind of viewer. However, this movie isn’t out to ridicule the nuns and their work. This is a story about the tension between earthly pleasures and higher callings but it also asks what a life of deprivation can do to a person and how desire and abstinence can lead to madness. These ideas are treated seriously by the filmmakers and throughout Black Narcissus the characters struggle to maintain the disciplined spiritual ideal while everything around them seems determined to undermine it. Black Narcissus centers upon two nuns. Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, has been named Sister Superior of a new convent in the Himalayas. Clodagh is inexperienced and she struggles to maintain discipline within the convent while her mind drifts to her former life of luxury. Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, is a school teacher whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Life at the convent is upset by the presence of Mr. Dean, an eligible British bachelor played by David Farrar. These women became clergy not as a spiritual endeavor but out of a lack of options and in Mr. Dean they see the possibilities of another life. The way Clodagh and Ruth respond to Mr. Dean makes that clear and Deborah Kerr and especially Kathleen Byron provide terrific performances. Part of what is interesting about Mr. Dean’s character is that he is used in a way that Hollywood films typically portray women, which is to say that he’s mostly an empty vessel into which the female characters project idealism and hope for the future. This spiritual struggle runs throughout the movie and it doesn’t just afflict the clergy. It is also dramatized though a forbidden romance between an Indian nobleman (Sabu) and a lower caste woman (Jean Simmons). The film takes a minimalist approach to their story but the couple’s mutual desire is clear. The tension of Black Narcissus is also found in the setting. This movie is terrifically shot and it captures the natural beauty of the mountains. But the broad horizon visualizes the possibilities these women are giving up and the convent is built into a cliff; the location creates an apt (if somewhat obvious) visual metaphor of the conflicts in this movie. Black Narcissus is also interesting as a historical piece. The movie was released the same year that India achieved independence from the British Empire and whether by intent or by coincidence, Black Narcissus plays as a recognition of the end of an era.

What Doesn’t: Although Black Narcissus is an intelligent and considered movie about faith, it’s unlikely to appeal to today’s religious moviegoers. That audience has made it clear that they prefer cinematic depictions of faith to fit within a narrow set of parameters. Movies like God’s Not Dead play well with that audience while more challenging films such as Noah do not. Black Narcissus does not operate within those boundaries. It’s not belligerent toward religion but at the time of its release Black Narcissus did have trouble with religious groups and censors and that’s unlikely to have changed.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition of Black Narcissus includes a commentary track, interviews, documentaries, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: Black Narcissus is a great movie about the struggles of spirituality but it’s not nearly as aloof as that sounds. The movie is grounded in very real struggles and desires which are dramatized though terrific performances by Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron as well as the film’s wonderful cinematography and production design.

Episode: #659 (August 6, 2017)