Black Narcissus (1947)

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Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Written by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger from the novel by Rumer Godden
The Archers
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
#194 of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die


Sister Clodagh: Well I really don’t know what to do.

Mr. Dean: What would Christ have done?

I have seen this more times than I can count and each time I am more enchanted each time by the beauty of its images and astounded that it could possibly have been shot on the studio lot in England.  Coincidence that this was made just as Britain was poised to lose the jewel in its colonial crown?  I think not.

A “working” order of Episcopal nuns, bound only by annual vows, prepares to open a school and clinic high in the Indian Himalayas courtesy of a local General/Maharaja. Against the Mother Superior’s better judgement, young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is appointed to lead the small contingent sent to staff the convent.  For some reason, Mother decides to select Sister Ruth (Kathleen Bryan), a “problem case” for this arduous duty as well.

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When the nuns arrive, they find they are to be housed in a castle in which the General’s father kept his many women.  The castle is decorated with erotic frescos of pleasure gardens.  The General has paid the populace to fill the school and hospital.  The scent of Black Narcissus perfume, and later of tropical flowers, fills the air.  Native drums beat day and night and the wind blows incessantly.

Worst, studly Mr. Dean (David Farrar) is the nuns’ only link with the Western world and he has gone fairly native himself.  It doesn’t help that he runs around bare chested and in short shorts all the time.  Soon the nuns are having a hard time keeping their minds on their work as long suppressed desires start flooding back.  With Flora Robson as one of the nuns, Sabu as the general’s son and Jean Simmons as a wild young local girl.

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This is a simply gorgeous movie.  Cinematographer Jack Cardiff was a student of classical art and uses color like a painter.  To add to the glory, the film benefits from some of the best matte paintings ever done.  It took me a couple of viewings to get into the overblown plot but the visuals were immediately captivating.  The horror story that takes over in the final act is another kind of visual delight.

In one sense, this is a story of the futility of the colonial enterprise, if not of its immorality. The nuns might just as well have been sent to live on another planet for all the understanding they were able to develop of the people.  And vice versa of course.  The difference is that nobody asked the nuns to go there.

One niggle.  Does anyone else think David Farrar looks like a small boy riding that tiny pony in those little shorts and funny hat?  I don’t think Powell and Pressburger could have found a better way to make him anti-sexy.  Then again, as soon as they focus on his face and eyes, he does quite well in that department.

Black Narcissus won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Color and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color.



4 thoughts on “Black Narcissus (1947)

  1. This is a film that I recommend to people all the time. About 90% of them look at me like I’m an idiot. The 10% who do actually take the recommendation and watch it have, to a person, returned to me later and thanked me for suggesting it.

  2. This is one of my favorites. Not just because it is gorgeous to look at but also because it is a clever story. Maybe the smartest movie P&P did. I have forgotten Jean Simmons was in it. She is so masked that it is difficult to see the same girl as in later Hollywood productions.

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