November Issue 2013
Classic Film Review: Black Narcissus
Written and directed by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Black Narcissus is a visual masterpiece that, despite much of its outdated and cringeworthy orientalism, has managed to stand the test of time.
Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, the film is a psychological drama, with some elements of horror. It follows a group of Anglican nuns, led by the young Sister Clodagh, who are assigned to set up a convent in a desolate old palace in the Himalayas. The palace, known as ‘the House of Women,’ once served as a harem for an Indian general, but it is to now be occupied by a very different kind of women, who are quick to change its name, and reputation, to St Faiths. Situated 9000 feet above land, the palace’s only other inhabitant is Angu Ayah, an eccentric old woman who serves as its caretaker. A holy man who meditates all day and never speaks a word also resides in the area. The rest of the population, including the current general and the handsome but somewhat ‘base’ English agent, Mr Dean, live in the valley below, “out of the wind” that mercilessly haunts the higher peaks.
A sense of foreboding is established from the very first scene, with a shot of the mountainous landscape, which is as striking as it is threatening. The nuns notice changes in their psychological states as they find themselves having less-than-pure thoughts and remembering their pasts. The wind, which is repeatedly referenced to in the film, is a euphemism for their wavering minds and audiences sense that, if they continue to live in the palace, they too may end up like the holy man or Ayah. Most vulnerable of them all is Sister Ruth, who is attracted to Dean and jealous of the attention he gives to Sister Clodagh.
Though many interpretations can be read into the film, Black Narcissus is essentially about sexuality, repression and desire. This is never said, and there is little display of anything even close to it, but is established through innuendo, symbolism and suggestion. The film exaggerates the conflict between the East and the West, the rational and irrational drives, the spirit and the flesh and the vague line that separates them, which the nuns risk crossing over.
Shot in Technicolor, the directors masterfully use a wide range of hues. The nuns are so pale that they look like they’re made of stone, in contrast to the vibrancy of their surroundings. The narcissus is a flower that was once associated with possessing narcotic properties, and explains the surreal feel of the film. Moreover, the flower also symbolises vanity and, in the context of this film, an elevation of the self over one’s duty to God, which, in the case of Sister Ruth, has severe repercussions.
The film is also memorable for its embarrassingly inaccurate portrayal of ‘natives.’ Despite Sister Ruth’s comment about all Indians looking the same, the cast of local characters includes every ethnicity, from African American to Chinese. Contemporary viewers, especially in this part of the world, will find the portrayal of natives fairly bizarre. But then, many contemporary viewers are likely to find the entire film and its premise bizarre.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2013 issue under the headline, “In Spirit and Flesh.”
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.
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