Black Narcissus

United Kingdom, 1947

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

With Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), Flora Robson (Sister Philippa), Judith Furse (Sister Briony), Jenny Laird (Sister Honey), Eddie Whaley Jr. (Joseph Anthony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Sabu (the young general), Esmond Knight (the old general)

Five nuns from the Kolkata-based mission of a Catholic religious order, the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, are tasked with opening a dispensary and a school in a distant district in the Himalayas, Mopu, whose local Hindu leader, an old general, has decided to grant an old palace to the order. Sister Clodagh, who leads the operation, and Sisters Ruth, Philippa, Briony and Honey, find it hard to settle down, even more as the two persons who are supposed to help them make the new mission up and running, the old woman in charge of the palace’s upkeep, Angu Ayah, and the local agent of the British Empire, Mr. Dean, are openly sceptical that the villagers would go to the dispensary and let their children attend the classes. For Angu Ayah and Mr. Dean, remembering how a group of monks had earlier failed in a similar mission, the nuns are doomed to fail too, a defeatist view Sister Clodagh rejects, especially as people start to flow in the palace while the sisters got the support of a charming, clever, bilingual kid, Joseph Anthony. But mishaps do happen and terrible troubles do arise and the women would have to call it quits.

First a resolute and zealous nun, and then a troubled and weakened lady: Deborah Kerr

The first time Sister Clodagh rings the huge bell that has been put up on a ledge where the estate ends and a deep precipice lies open, a dramatic very high angle shot that would spook any faint heart but not the sister who fully enjoys the moment, is followed up by a quite different scene delivering a competing sound of ritual: shot on a slight low angle, the camera captures Buddhist monks, in ornate religious garbs, blowing their trademark long trumpets. The montage makes it plain: the nuns face different beliefs and ways of life that would be hard to shake up.

The villagers clearly do not show a great interest in the religious tenets of the nuns, with the remarkable but flawed exception of the old general’s son, the young general, whose wish to learn a lot is rather a childish, superficial desire to be seen as bright and clever even as his behaviors suggest he would struggle to get ever such traits; for the villagers, the main interest offered by the nuns lies in their odd ways to deal with bodies and exotic (to their eyes) bottles, signs they may wield a real power over illness and pain – and a blunder by one of the nuns, too saddened by the pain of a baby who has clearly no chance to survive, would lead to a life-threatening crisis of confidence hastening the debacle and underlining how little their Christian faith has been taken seriously. The fact is that the villagers pay more attention to a sadhu meditating below a tree on a corner of the property given to the nuns; Sister Clodagh can complain all day about the old man, she cannot do as she pleases – and get rid of him.

Yet this is not really a religious or a cultural clash that stokes the malaise gnawing at the nuns’ zeal. The film boldly puts the blame down to a wider, hazier cause, a quality in the place and in feelings that eventually challenges the beliefs. It cleverly starts with a physical detail, those rashes Sister Briony, the medical officer of the group, notices on their arms – maybe it is the water? Or the plumbing that sullies the water? Right away Mr. Dean fixes the plumbing, but it is not clear that it solves the puzzle.

Later Sister Clodagh rushes through the garden – what a trepidation in this quiet place and what a way to deal with characters; so far they have been shown simply busy, although the demeanor of Sister Ruth was worrying, clearly hinting at serious troubles; but here something clearly is disquieting. Sister Philippa did not respond to the bell and come for the lunch. There is something in the air, the place, that distracts her, she claims – a horizon too wide to be embraced, an urge too strong to ignore. Can she goes on doing her tasks? Yes, Sister Clodagh thinks. But later Sister Clodagh realizes that no vegetable have been grown, only nice flowers. Fantasy trumped necessity here, and Sister Philippa is actually relieved to tender her resignation.

Sister Philippa at least acknowledges the challenge, unlike her chief. Some of the intensest moments come when Sister Clodagh tries to assert her authority, to cope with whatever happens, to cling to her aims – this is a battle and she is a fighter, her stern face facing the enemy. But she is no longer fully focused: time and again, images of her past crop up, her daily routine taking her unexpectedly on a walk down her memory lane. The story of her assignment is the story of her (sad) sentimental life, as if that eerie air around her had the ability to dissolve the walls erected between the time that preceded her vows and what her life is now.

And there is the deeper layer of trouble, the most intimate and shocking that the indigenous would bluntly experience in their bodies, a vignette of the narrative that is the explicit illustration of what could challenge a chaste and pure mind. The romantic romp briefly uniting the young general and a promiscuous servant Sister Clodagh accepted to hire to please Mr. Dean, Kanchi, is the vivid, natural expression of the sexual urge that the nuns are supposed to repress. This incident reflects the nature cycle of life and human desire that the traditional mural paintings of the old palace duly illustrate, artistic representation of a religious vision that does not shy from grappling with sex. And those natural elements cannot be ignored by the strong-minded Sister Clodagh; in the case of Sister Ruth, they are in fact the cause of her insanity. A kind gesture by Mr. Dean was enough to stir illusion and lust in the aggressive young woman who has probably never had much balance and composure. “Black Narcissus” chronicles how she increasingly displays her innate wickedness and perversion, till the final disaster. This is an obvious, and perhaps too obvious, case of hysteria that is nevertheless treated with a consummate sense of thriller and horror, a compelling portrait of madness lurking in a quiet place before carrying out graphic acts of savagery.

The way hands get closer, or not, touch, or not: the final encounter between Mr. Dean, the archetypal man of adventure, athletic and disheveled, practical and cavalier, outspoken and gruff, and the dignified Sister Clodagh tells a lot about what they could feel for each other. This is a romance that could have been but neither could have taken the right steps – what is left to watch is the complex feelings running through the face of Mr. Dean during the last, magnificent shot on him the film telling so much about that missed story. At least there is one thing he cannot regret: his hunch was correct. The film seemed to start as a fresh illustration of the opinion of Rudyard Kipling claiming that East and West would never meet: but it morphed into a more complicated, psychological, esoteric, erotic, savage tale, showing that there are mysterious places in the world that would deeply alter one’s perception, will, and mind. The task failed because the nuns were thrown into a corner of the world too challenging and dangerous for their personalities and skills, a supernatural place that should have been ignored – and indeed the last shots on the Mopu palace show it getting shrouded by clouds, vanishing as if it was an illusion, a magic locus straight from a Gothic novel; as it happens, the way the place is shot and lit all along does gives that exotic tale the flavor of a Gothic horror film, an eerie atmosphere that bewitches and stuns.

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