Largely unseen before the laser revolution of the 1980s and the publicity efforts of Martin
Scorsese, the work of Powell and Pressburger has finally taken its place at the top of great
British filmmaking. Far from their most celebrated film, Black Narcissus may just be
their best. At the top of their craft and the height of their creative powers, it is a
sensual, disturbing, weird, magical and magnificent movie. Its spell is not easily described.
A group of nuns moves into a castle-like eyrie on a mountain in Northern India to
open a school and a clinic. The inexperienced Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr)
manages as best she can in a situation where the locals don't take their mission
seriously. The natives are paid to come to school. The housekeeper (May Hallatt) is a
weird crone who revels in the house's obscene past life as a hareem. The local English
agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) predicts failure with an unwelcome and sarcastic attitude.
Love and devotion have no weapons to counter the life force of the region, which
worships other gods and other moral values. Sister Clodagh takes in a wayward orphan
(an adolescent, sensual Jean Simmons) and a cheerful prince (Sabu), a combination that
anyone can see will lead to disaster. All of the sisters are warped by the lush
worldliness of the mountain, even the faithful Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson) who
is driven by an indefinable force to plant flowers instead of vegetables. Sister Clodagh
herself is beset by bitter memories of the secular life she left behind. And the unstable
Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is driven mad by Clodagh's unyielding hostility and her own
Black Narcissus is a challenging movie that feeds the eye and stimulates the senses.
Directed with Powell and Pressburger's noted clarity and graphic elegance, everything about
its story, characters and themes is unpredictable. The undefined force that assails the
Nuns is expressed only in visual terms - the mystical beauty of their new home and the 'realness'
of nature loosen their grip on their abstract, abstemious, life-denying lifestyle. Their
devotion to Christianity seems petty beside the convictions of the local wise man, who
sits eternally motionless and silent as if in the confidence of older, wiser gods. Not only
are their individual faiths tested, the Nuns' ability to function is impaired by the
very contradiction of the open air and space, which, to paraphrase Francis Coppola, seems
to put the zap on their brains. Clodagh bullies her charges and develops a self-denied
crush on Mr. Dean. Instead of feeding her Sisters, Fillipa ends up cultivating flowers. The
optimistic Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) becomes a sentimental hysteric. And the 'sick' Sister
Ruth turns her low self-esteem and rage against herself.
This doesn't even begin to convey the complexity in Black Narcissus, much of which
is beautifully communicated through images and sound. Powell and Pressburger experimented
with a musical form in one climactic passage, building images to the rising fervor of a
pre-composed musical score. Its success encouraged them to proceed from
Narcissus directly to their hyper-sensual musical feast The Red Shoes. The
direction owes little to anything seen before; Kanchi's seductive dance in one of the
curious rooms of the convent is shown in just a few extremely expressive shots, yet
conveys a unique exoticism.
Older British movies (even many new ones) are as appallingly blind as American films to
politics and the Third World, a tradition that Powell and Pressburger happily stay
entirely outside. David Farrar's Mr. Dean represents an English presence that at first
seems corrupt until we understand that he sees the Indian culture for what it is, and has
no designs on Sisters Clodagh or Ruth. Only then do we realize, like Dean, that India is
a mystery in which Englanders can never directly participate. A dignified withdrawal is
the best that can be hoped for.
Some recent Savant reading unearthed the tale of English filmmakers Powell, Carol Reed and
David Lean watching convoy-shipped rare prints of American movies during World War 2,
personally bicycling one of their favorites, The Seventh Victim to screenings in a
bombed-out London. This makes Savant want to connect Black Narcissus to the films
of Val Lewton, particularly his I Walked With a Zombie. Before your eyeballs roll
violently, think on the following: A sensual, distracting tropical ambiance created
entirely in the studio, with seductive tracking shots and lighting effects that create
a palpable feeling of fantasy. An interpersonal story that pits the political and
religious ideologies of individuals against one another, in a land where modern Western
ideas sit uneasily atop incompatible ancient beliefs and traditions, some of which are
dangerous. The story is told less through action than (this right from the Black
Narcissus DVD notes) 'a succession of small incidents and casual encounters' - precisely
the way Joel Siegel described Lewton's narrative style in The Seventh Victim.
Very similar to the zombie product of passion and repression in Zombie, Sister
Ruth in Narcissus is transformed into a zombie-like harpy, a 'worldly woman' in a
red dress and red lipstick, eyes blazing and hair akimbo, like a Fury. If this comparison
does nothing for the appreciation of Narcissus, it will hopefully elevate the
genre-bound graces of the Lewton and Tourneur's wonderful Zombie movie.
In the late '70s Powell was a Filmmaker in Residence at Coppola's short-lived Zoetrope
studios in Hollywood. Savant cut an outside film in a rented room there during the making
of One From the Heart and saw lots of Gene Kelly helping Francis with his
dance numbers, but never Powell. Matte painter friend Rocco Gioffre did run into the elderly
gentleman in an elevator and described him as a short, happy, red faced man with a
boyish attitude, who whistled the 'I want to be a sailor' theme from The Thief of Bagdad. Wow.
The old laser disc of Black Narcissus was a standout in the Criterion library, but
the added extras on the new DVD are even better. With the obvious enthusiastic input of
Powell widow and editor Thelma Schoonmaker and Powell revivalist Martin Scorsese, Craig
McCall's documentary Painting with Light investigates both Jack Cardiff and his
Technicolor camera and shows the sheer artistry and inventiveness of the 'look' of Black
Narcissus, which convincing Himalayan vistas were accomplished without modern technology.
The models, matte paintings and painted cycloramic views explained in this great docu aren't
trying to outdo other films in a high-tech rat race, and they aren't even trying to look
real. They express a heightened reality that pulls psychological and even mystical
qualities from the characters, and paints them on the screen for us to experience.
On the commentary, Scorsese guides a frail-sounding Powell through an examination of
the film. Powell is sometimes hard to understand but what he says is as priceless as if
that Holy Man on the mountain decided to talk. The still galleries contain evidence of
interesting-looking cut scenes. Like any description, the trailer cannot begin to convey
the non-Hollywood uniqueness of this movie. The rest of the essays and text prompts on
the disc are equally authoritative and compelling. Black Narcissus is placed in the
best possible light with this presentation.
This is what Criterion does best. Their DVD of Black Narcissus is sensational cinema.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Black Narcissus rates:
Movie: Excellent, and Beyond
Supplements: Commentary with Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese, Painting With Light
a docu excerpt on the photography of Black Narcissus and Jack Cardiff, production
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: January 27, 2001
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