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