The works of Powell and Pressburger, as they related to Archer, are cinematic feasts. Most everyone one of their films are in glorious Technicolor and incorporate expensive special effects that translate beautifully for being over sixty years old. Not to mention the famous directing duo has an ability to make melodrama seem admirably understated and expertly extravagant. Their 1947 work Black Narcissus does just this, while mixing religious guilt and sexual longing into the mix, creating perhaps one of their most controversial films, second only to the nightmare that is Peeping Tom. With a stellar cast, including a young Jean Simmons and the always-amiable Sabu, the imagery seeps seduction and subversion. It is, however, not an entirely problem free movie, in fact, as can be expected of a film released in the late forties, it deals with issues of race, gender and class rather flippantly. Needless to say, Black Narcissus is a glorious bit of filmmaking that is right inline with my previous review of The School of the Holy Beast, minus the blatant sexual exploitation of course.
The film follows a group of young nuns who have been tasked with creating a self-sustaining convent in the uninhabitable Himalayas. Their already difficult task is made exponentially worse by a insolent general whose whimsy with newly formed religious outposts causes the group to find the task of caring for locals more burdensome than divinely rewarding. Regardless, the group is led by the young, but keenly devout, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). In youthful ignorance, Clodagh refuses to see the mission as an inevitable failure. Along with a group of fellow handpicked nuns, including Clodagh's rival Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, the convent opens rather successfully. This success, as should be no surprise, is short-lived, particularly with the emergence of the suave and cunning Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Dean, despite being an Englishmen by birth, is an expert in the Himalayan people and advises the nuns on the best methods to assure harmony with the locals. Clodagh, as well as Ruth, find themselves incessantly drawn towards Dean, often associating him with memories of their relationships prior to their convent life. As if to make matters worse, their dreams of intimacy are enacted physically between the general's son (Sabu) and a sultry local girl named Kanchi (Jean Simmons). The unfulfilled desire, as well as a growing animosity between the convent and locals, results in a climactic downfall of the convent that results in one of the most mesmerizing and heart-pounding death scenes I have ever witnessed in a movie. The film closes with voice-overs and panning shots of the now abandoned convent, employing all the key genre elements of melodrama, in sweet, aching subtlety. Black Narcissus is a film that simply ends with its characters left desiring and worse because of it.
This film takes liberties with its idyllic portrayals of race, gender and class. This is evident from the seemingly synchronous relations of the nuns to the smiling faces on the natives accepting their colonization, but as I noted earlier this is a style very evident of the eras filmmaking, particularly as it relates to British works. This film reminds me of two other British films, the first being The Thief of Baghdad, which involved Powell and a handful of other directors, and an earlier work titled Gungadin, starring a young Carey Grant. The films collectively deal with issues of colonization, whether it be racial, sexual or economically. Gungadin exploits Indian soldiers in the name of expanding the British empire, while The Thief of Baghdad exploits the racial uniqueness of actors such as Sabu and Rex Ingram to give the film an exotic feel, while relying on a white actor to play the major roles, this is done in Black Narcissus with Kanchi, as Jean Simmons is basically applying yellow face to play the part. These are all tragic actions reflective of film prior to the Civil Rights and Women's Rights movements of the late sixties and early seventies that cannot be denied. It is not to dismiss the movies entirely, but instead to make viewers more self aware of what they are taking in when watching a film that is in all other respects flawless. I would use this same critique on Gone With The Wind, a critique that many people I know are unwilling to acknowledge, because they are scared of tarnishing its "classicness." I want people to love Black Narcissus, but I do not want them to take its historical relevance for granted either.
Black Narcissus is a Criterion blu-ray if ever one existed and well, well, well worth owning. Buy two copies, one for yourself and one for a friend...it is just that good.