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BLACK NARCISSUS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byron, Sabu, Jean Simmons
Directors:  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  101 Minutes
Release Date:  January 30, 2001

Film ****

Black Narcissus is a cinematic masterpiece…at once strikingly beautiful and hauntingly compelling, creating a sensual world almost beyond comprehension and placing a small convent of nuns right in the middle of it.  A metaphysical war breaks out between body and soul…and in such a world, how can spirituality possibly win out?

Sister Clodagh (Kerr), the youngest in the order ever to receive the title, is given the assignment of setting up a proper convent in an ancient, beautiful home atop the Himalayas in India.  There, the sisters will bring Christianity to the Hindus, as well as set up a school for the children and a clinic for the infirmed.  The house was given to them by a proud old general, who used to house his women there.  It will be a house of women again…but a different kind.  Or will it?

The contrast between the sisters and their surroundings is immediately apparent.  Their colorless robes, covered bodies and pale faces set them apart from their lush surrounding and the colorful natives.  Not only is there beauty as far as the eye can see from where they are, but the wind constantly blows, and the open house leaves no shelter from it…in every scene, indoors or out, we are always aware of their habits billowing.  In religion, one tries to strengthen his or her spirit by depriving the flesh; hence the tradition of fasting.  Here, there is no way to escape physical sensation because of the wind always beckoning them away from the clouds and back into the world surrounding them.  “I think you can see too far,” one of the sisters offers as a reason for her sudden distraction.

Thrown into the mix are a handsome rogue, Mr. Dean (Farrar), who seems to be the only help the sisters have where they are, and a young princely general (Sabu), who insists upon being a student with the nuns despite his obvious complication of being male.

How do these devoted women react to such a strange, enticing mix?  Some find long buried memories stirring up within themselves, making it more and more difficult for them to carry out their work.  In a few well-executed flashbacks, even Sister Clodagh reveals to us a long lost tale about a boy who wouldn’t marry her and sent her scurrying into the arms of the church.  Yet another, Sister Ruth (Byron), seems to be going a bit mad.  She begins to have feelings for Mr. Dean, as well as considering Sister Clodagh a staunch threat to her happiness.

I should point out, though, that when I describe the film as sensual, I don’t necessarily mean that as a synonym for sexual.  Truth be told, a much older film like Flesh and the Devil was more overt in its sexual passions than this one.  But director Michael Powell has created a much more disturbing and psychological film in its place.  He assaults us with colors and beauty, and shows us a land where we can’t help but think of romance and adventure…yet he peoples it with chaste religious sisters, who find themselves at odds with their own surroundings in trying to carry out their work.

Filmmakers have long held a fascination for sexual repression and celibacy, which is why, I think, there have been so many that introduced a romantic angle into a story about a priest or other forsworn religious figure.  Celibacy by choice may be a sign of great devotion, but if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit—it’s not a natural state for a human being, and virtually impossible to escape from the temptations against it.  But unlike many of those carbon copy movies, Powell has created a world so filled with sensual beauty that it is almost as if the environment were making a mockery of the sisters’ devotion.

I use the phrase “created a world”, because that is exactly what Powell and his creative partner Emeric Pressburger have done here.  As amazing and convincing as the footage looks in the picture, not a frame of it was shot on location—it was all done in a carefully controlled studio environment.  When I watched the film for the first time, I was astounded to learn that.  The second time through, I began to be convinced that there was no other way to achieve that kind of effect rather than artificially. 

But Powell, the master expressionist, used so much more than a lushly created and lovingly filmed environment.  This film is filled with emotion (not melodrama), which is brought out not only by the story and performances, but by his deliberate techniques as a craftsman.  Completely shrugging off the mannerism and timidity of World War II British cinema, Powell goes for broke in almost every shot.  To raise the intensity in a confrontation between Sisters Clodagh and Ruth, he brings the camera in for close-ups.  But not just any close-ups:  he gets so near to his subject matter that I found myself unconsciously wanting to back away from the screen…too close for comfort in other words.  He uses lighting and shading within his rich palate of colors to communicate ideas through images and symbols:  I love, for example, during one of Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks, how the shadow of the cross falls upon her face.  Other bits of light are carefully and skillfully manipulated to really explore the landscape of the actress’ faces.  In some cases, Powell raises the intensity so simply, yet in such potent ways, it becomes almost unbearable.

As Sister Ruth loses control and becomes convinced of Sister Clodagh’s animosity, notice how we see the shot from her point of view—it washes over red, slowly, deliberately, and so strongly we want it to stop.  This is interrupted by a complete wipe out of image and sound for just a moment, which startles effectively…and it is only the beginning of this woman’s descent.  I’ve watched the film twice now, and both times, I could scarcely breath during the climactic finale.

Powell and Pressburger’s filmography has nurtured the careers of many young aspiring movie makers, from Martin Scorsese to Brian De Palma, and to be sure, any serious or self-respecting student of the medium should not miss the privilege of exploring these unique, engrossing, emotional and highly technical masterpieces.  Michael Powell’s vocabulary of cinema was bold and daring, filled with images that frankly have never been seen before or since.  The Red Shoes, also available from Criterion, is another must-see masterpiece from P & P, and easily one of the greatest films ever made.

But Black Narcissus deserves no less of a mention.  What Michael Powell created was a film of such sensual urgency that it continues to compel and disturb, even today.  It’s no wonder the film had some problems with its first fun back in 1947:  not because the picture showed anything indecent, but because such an energy was captured within its frames, it caused many to react with horror.  Some claimed it was an affront to the Catholic church (the nuns in the picture are in fact Anglican and NOT Catholic)—in fact, when the picture first ran in Ireland, a disclaimer had to be attached to the beginning.  Some scenes were deliberately cut and/or altered (this Criterion version represents the complete and intact film).

Yet the film is not dirty, nor obscene, nor does it belittle religious conventions…far from all of these.  It is simply one of the greatest testaments to the raw, emotional power of film as an art form, and remains as significant and important today as it was over a half century ago.

Video ***1/2

Called by Leonard Maltin one of the most beautiful color films ever made, Criterion offers a magnificent DVD transfer, supervised by cinematographer Jack Cardiff.  For a film of its age, this presentation is simply remarkable.  There are inescapable flaws, of course, such as the occasional inconsistent flicker, or bit of dirt, or scratch, but they are all remarkably few and far between…I doubt we’ll see many films from the 40’s look as good as this one or The Red Shoes, for that matter.  The colors are indeed the main attraction, and they are more than beautiful…they’re spectacular.  From the interiors to the exteriors, from the brightly lit to the expressively shaded, every scene is a collage of vibrant visual information.  Images are quite sharp and clear throughout, even in the film’s deep focus shots.  There was no evidence of grain or compression anywhere, thanks in part to the dual layered disc.  I don’t think this movie could have asked for a better life than this Criterion DVD.

Audio ***

The original mono mix is surprisingly dynamic, and fits in with Powell’s expressive style.  The music sounds strong, with plenty of punch and potency, and dialogue is always clean and clear, and with equal strength in range.  The soundtrack is quite clean, with only the slightest bit of noise detectable in one or two quieter scenes, but again, far less than you might expect from a film of its age, and coming from an era when soundtracks were still recorded onto phonograph records.

Features ****

A real treat for film lovers, the main feature is a commentary track with Martin Scorsese and the late Michael Powell…Scorsese, one of the foremost experts on the films of Powell and Pressburger talks in great detail about the film and how it influenced him, while Powell recollects with kindly memories the making of the picture.  There is also an excellent documentary on Jack Cardiff called “Painting With Light”, which is an amazingly informative piece that really gets into the nuts and bolts of the difficult Technicolor process.  There is a collection of rare production stills, including ones of shots not in the final cut.  There is also an original trailer.

Summary:

Black Narcissus is Powell and Pressburger at their very best…nobody who loves movies should miss the chance to see this remarkable film, especially with this top notch DVD from Criterion.  Absolutely and without question a must-own.