After opening a convent in the Himalayas, five nuns encounter conflict and tension - both with the natives and also within their own group - as they attempt to adapt to their remote, exotic surroundings.
Five nuns open a convent in the Himalayas, where they encounter conflict and tension - not just with the nearby inhabitants, but also amongst themselves, as they attempt to surmount the difficulties inherent in trying to adjust to their new environment.Written by
For the scenes depicting the villagers, Michael Powell and his team had a ready supply of extras. As Powell wrote, "...when the war was just over, there was an immense floating population of Asians around London Docks, and we had no difficulty in building up a list of extras for the crowd scenes: Malays, Indians, Gurkhas, Nepalese, Hindus, Pakistanis, hundreds of them. We formed groups of different castes and races, and each group had a leader." See more »
An Australian kookaburra is heard laughing in a bamboo forest in the Himalayan foothills. See more »
"Without discipline, we should all behave like children"
Black Narcissus is one of those films that, no matter how many recommendations you get or how many plot synopses you read, probably won't make you want to rush out and buy it. After all, the story nuns struggling to set up a convent in the Himalayas won't grab many people. But Black Narcissus is far more than just a plot it's one of the most vibrant, exciting and how can I put it? hysterical films ever made. Once again Michael Powell pushes the possibilities of cinema to their extremes to show you a story.
First of all, Black Narcissus has to be the most visually beautiful film I have ever seen. The set design and shot composition hark back to both German Expressionist films and the work of Dutch painter Vermeer. Joined together with the breathtaking scenery (in actual fact carefully painted backdrops) and gorgeous Technicolor every single frame is a work of art.
Michael Powell had of course made a few great colour pictures before this, but this is probably his most assured use of Technicolor. Part of this is down to the amazing cinematography of Jack Cardiff, but Powell also shows a brilliant mind for colour scheme. Like in Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, he picks fairly neutral, almost monochrome shades, which give the really bold colours a greater impact when they appear. It's no accident that this order of nuns uses white habits white symbolising purity, like a wedding dress. In Kathleen Byron's first major scene her habit is splattered with blood, and by the end of the film she is wearing all red. The nun's peak-shaped cowls also resemble the snowy mountains that surround them on all sides, although ironically not nearly as permanent or immovable.
This is also one of the earliest examples I can think of where one genre is played as another. Black Narcissus is really a drama played as a horror. Those German Expressionist films referenced with the wonky set design and artistic shot composition Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Nosferatu, Faust etc were horrors. Most of the film, with its whites and blues, its large cavernous halls and not to mention the wind howling through every set has a feeling of cold eeriness. This builds up to the final half-hour which has a contrastingly hot aura of hot terror, culminating in a sequence that is the equal of the last five minutes of Nosferatu.
The use of music was Powell's best up to that point. Like the best silent film scoring, the imagery is often perfectly matched up to the score (by Brian Easdale). This is particularly nicely done in the wordless courtship between Sabu and Jean Simmons. There was a growing musical dimension to Powell and Pressburger's films, which would reach its peak with The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.
Michael Powell's films were generally as daring in terms of their ideas as they were in style, and his collaborator Emeric Pressburger is really half the secret of his success. Black Narcissus has often been noted as being rather risqué and ahead of its time in portraying sexual tension, and in a convent of all places! But it is also quite bold in its statements about the British Empire, and it's perhaps no surprise that this was made one year before India gained its independence. The whole thing could be read as an allegory for the colonies biting back, but it's the smaller details that really struck me. The attitude of the nuns towards the natives is at best patronising and at worst arrogant, but they are constantly being surprised and proved wrong. For example, in one scene Deborah Kerr walks past the holy man's tree talking about him as if he wasn't there, only for David Farrar to point out that the old man once served with the British Army, and apparently speaks perfect English.
There isn't a single weak link in this picture, the actors being no exception. Deborah Kerr and Flora Robson are their usual brilliant selves. The great Esmond Knight makes a all too brief appearance. Sabu, one of the most naturalistic young actors of his era, puts in perhaps the best performance of the film, with some of the playfulness of his role in Thief of Bagdad, but with an edge of maturity and an almost dangerous feel in some scenes. There's also an appearance very young Jean Simmons, who in my opinion out-does her better known adult performances. Her character is almost entirely mute, but she communicates plenty in her face and body language. Then there's David Farrar who, like another Powell regular Roger Livesy was never a star but always a great actor. But the performance that really sticks in the mind is Kathleen Byron who looks manages to look positively demonic (with the help of a little lighting and makeup, that is).
A decade or so later, Fred Zinnemann would make The Nun's Story, a film with many similarities in plot but stylistically completely different. Whereas The Nun's Story has a detailed realism to it, Black Narcissus is a vibrant, clashing melodrama, with everything turned up to eleven. It's perfectly made, and the only reason I can think of for anyone not liking it is that they might find it too over-the-top so much for the storyline sounding dull! As the tagline says, this truly is drama at the top of the world.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?
| Report this