Saturday, January 14, 2012

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus (1947) ★★★★★ 5/5

Far up in the most remote mountaintops of the Himalayas sits a run down temple. This temple soon becomes a convent of nuns brought in to teach and heal the poor people of the nearby Indian villages. The convent is run by Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) who is young and inexperienced. Her first obstacle is making the place operational. Locks are missing, the plumbing is bad, and the water is causing sickness. Her second obstacle is that she has discovered the people coming to the convent are being paid to do so. There is no interest by the people coming to the temple to learn or grow. They just want to be paid. Yet another obstacle is that these people are superstitious and there is a fear that if a sick person were to die under their care, the rest of them would see the place as cursed and leave immediately.

British agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) is an ambassador of sorts who lives in the convent and in a sense oversees the nuns. He offers his services which include repairs and advice. The advice often delivered with a tone found offensive to the nuns. Mr. Dean also brings them Kanchi (Jean Simmons). Kanchi is a local problem girl. She is 17 and at the age where she should be married off. She speaks no English and is a little too sexy for the nuns liking. A Young Indian Prince (Sabu) comes to the Convent and pleads for the nuns to take him in and educate him. Dean fears that there may be issues with Kanchi and the Prince.

The Prince does indeed catch the eye of Kanchi, who seductively gazes at him and indulges in his scent. His scent is a cologne from England called "Black Narcissus." Narcissus is a species of plants which includes Amaryllis and Daffodils. The smell does not only affect Kanchi, but it also takes hold of Sister Superior Clodagh who begins to reminisce of her days before taking to the habit. Apparently in 1949 these scenes were considered inappropriate by the Catholic Legion of Decency and were removed for the film's showing in the United States. While they seem completely harmless, I would imagine at the time this was released the Catholic Church did not feel it appropriate to see nuns as anything other then spiritual and holy. My guess is that they did not a nun to be perceived as a typical woman longing for romance, jewels, and wealth. In remembering her past, Sister Superior Clodagh seems to miss some aspects of her previous life.
The memories are generally triggered by Mr. Dean and the Prince.

But Clodagh is not alone. The other sisters become swayed in their thinking. They begin to long for other things in life. They become confused about what they want and what they are there for. With clouded judgement, one begins to have impure thoughts about Mr. Dean, another requests a transfer thinking the place is having a negative impact on her thoughts, others lose their compassion, and one sister kills a sickly newborn baby to prevent him from a slow death. The death of the child was also the death of the convent. The villagers fled the convent and abandoned the nuns.

Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) eventually snaps. She defies the sisterhood by failing to renew her vows, then donning a somewhat sexy red dress, applying make up and hunting Mr. Dean down to confess her love. She sees red and blacks out in a crazed frenzy. When she awakens Dean sends her back to the convent and she attempts to murder Sister Superior Clodagh. It is a brilliant and suspenseful scene - the pinnacle of the movie.

Black Narcissus won 2 Academy Awards. One for Cinematography and one for Art Direction. That was no surprise as the landscapes shot in both the Himalayas and Ireland are of sweeping landscapes. There is a stark contrast between the two and each is beautiful in their own way. The imagery is bright and bold throughout the film and colors are used extensively through murals on the temple walls and clothing of the Indian people.

The film is worthy of the list and should be watched. It is suspenseful and dramatic. The musical score carries the plots and changes quite well. The dynamics between the nuns and the changes they go through is exciting. Initially I was not expecting much from the film. Seriously, how entertaining could a movie about some nuns be. But this is far more then a movie about nuns. It is about how these women deal with and respond to their environment and their suppressed desires. The breakdown of Sister Ruth is climatic and clearly an influential scene in the development of film as far as portraying and conveying a mental collapse. The film transcends from a film about nuns to a film about one woman's insanity. Everything changes in the film at that point. The angles from which the film is shot to the colors, sounds and music. Tension is heightened flawlessly. For this scene alone it is worth watching, but you should watch it as a whole of course to fully capture the emotion.

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