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Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus has been growing in reputation for years, and presently occupies spot #44 on the British Film Institute's list of greatest British Films. A wondrous filmic achievement that defies 1940s trends in subject matter and popular taste, Black Narcissus concerns a group of nuns that relocate to a lofty Indian eyrie that defies their efforts to impose a pious Christian order. This convent in the sky seems possessed by secular, sensual forces beyond their control. Gathering an inspired group of film-craft experts, "The Archers" create an intense audio-visual experience that conveys this other-dimensional mystery directly to the audience. The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray release does full justice to this remarkable production.
Adapted from a novel by Rumer Godden, the daring storyline undercuts the movie-matinee notion that women of the cloth are magic creatures removed from human weakness and surrounded by a transformative aura. In Calcutta, young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is given the leadership of a new convent to be established in a mountaintop palace, to be renamed Saint Faith. Once installed, the nuns are deeply affected by the palace's history as a seraglio. Local agent Mr. Dean (David Farrar) has in some ways "gone native", and takes pleasure in challenging Sister Clodagh's idea that rural Indian customs and attitudes can be easily suppressed. Sister Clodagh and her teachers are unable to dislodge the markedly un-Christian behavior of the locals, especially the phenomenally sensual girl Kanchi (Jean Simmons) and the imperious, ignorant young "general" who insists on being educated with the female students (Sabu). What's more, the sisters are overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the light and space on top of their mountain. Sister Philippa (Flora Robson) is so distracted that she cannot concentrate on her prayers. The weakest of the nuns is Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). Insecure and desperate for acknowledgement, Sister Ruth rebels against Sister Clodagh's authority, yearns for the attentions of Mr. Dean, and becomes mentally unbalanced.
It's not unusual for viewers of Black Narcissus to be overwhelmed by its pictorial impact. Acting on the their own artistic inspirations and unfettered by the Technicolor Corporation's "rules" about the use of color, writer-directors Powell & Pressburger encouraged their star cameraman Jack Cardiff to experiment and innovate. Art Director Alfred Junge uses color in ways that haven't been attempted before or since: strange green and blue murals on the convent walls surround the nuns in a heady atmosphere of sensuality. Skin textures and tropical gardens stretch the limits of Technicolor's color palette. The production never went on location. Cinematographer Cardiff recreates India from inside an English studio, employing miniatures and mattes and creating emotional impressions with subtle, painterly lighting effects. Metallic horns blowing on a hill reflect a golden sheen that can only come from a rising sun. Billowing curtains sweep every corner of the convent, blowing away the sisters' efforts to establish a devout atmosphere. Cardiff and Powell avoid some of the effects-for-their-own-sake in their precocious A Matter of Life and Death. No enormous blinking eyelids appear, but Powell does make excellent use of a subjective "fade to red" to represent Sister Ruth's point of view as she faints in Mr. Dean's study.
The futility of Sister Clodagh's struggle to gain control is best expressed by a mysterious shaman who sits unmoving in the forest, and is worshipped as a pagan saint. Clodagh cannot remove the old man and cannot make the locals ignore him. By the same token, she has no control over the actions of the impish Young General, who ignores the nun's instructions and seduces Kanchi. He remains blithely undeterred by anything resembling a Christian conscience. Finally, Sister Clodagh must recognize her own weaknesses. She begins by expressing an immodest pride in her selection as convent supervisor, and then learns to regret her prejudice against the hapless Sister Ruth. Sister Clodagh entertains memories of her life before she took her vows. She clearly enjoys the company of the masculine, sympathetic Mr. Dean.
Critics like to say that Black Narcissus belongs to no established genre, but what it most resembles is a horror film. In his autobiography Michael Powell mentions eagerly bicycling film prints of Val Lewton's RKO horror thrillers around a bomb-stricken London, and Black Narcissus bears interesting parallels with the Lewton/Jacques Tourneur horror film I Walked with a Zombie. Both pictures feature intoxicating "exotic" locales artificially created in a movie studio, and both are about the failure of Anglo colonists to impose Christian values on native traditions. Like the doctor in Zombie, the sisters struggle against local superstition to entice their Indian patients to accept Western medicine. And both pictures feature a female "monster": Kathleen Byron's deranged Sister Ruth closely resembles Christine Gordon's somnambulistic phantom in the Lewton picture. A "worldly woman" in a red dress and red lipstick, Ruth is transformed into a zombie-like madwoman, eyes blazing and hair akimbo.
Michael Powell builds Black Narcissus to an operatic finish by wedding Cardiff's intense images to Brian Easdale's overpowering musical score. Easdale supervised both music and sound effects to bring the studio-filmed Saint Faith Convent to life. For the final confrontation atop an impossible precipice, Powell's images follow the rhythm of the music, turning a dawn stalking sequence into a mini-opera. The filmmaker's interest in this "orchestrated cinema" idea led him to take as his next assignment The Red Shoes -- a ballet musical that again has more in common with a horror movie than a musical comedy.
Deborah Kerr's intense performance helped launch her Hollywood career -- England's loss -- while the less well-known David Farrar exudes considerable star appeal. Kathleen Byron, who reportedly bridled at Powell's insistence that she play Sister Ruth over the top, dominates the film's most dramatic close-ups. A frightening representation of Sister Clodagh's suppressed sensuality run wild, Sister Ruth is one of the screen's most vibrant horror creations.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Black Narcissus is sourced from a 2005 British restoration that far surpasses earlier video incarnations, including Criterion's previous DVD release in 2001. The HD video's color quality rivals original Technicolor prints, and the detail is astounding. One of the rooms in the convent is painted with what look like several different shades of green, all easily distinguished. Digital cleanup makes the ambitious matte paintings seem more natural, but the restorers have wisely refrained from cleansing imperfections from the background painting behind the film titles. Black Narcissus may be the most ambitious and creative Technicolor movie ever filmed.
Disc producer Karen Stetler has been shepherding Powell/Pressburger special editions for Criterion since the beginning, and for this Blu-ray she mixes the best of older and newer extras. The commentary with Martin Scorsese and a frail-voiced Michael Powell dates back to an initial laserdisc edition. Director-critic Bertrand Tavernier contributes two new featurettes with comments and insights about The Archers and Black Narcissus. Also new is an interview piece that gathers some of Powell & Pressburger's collaborators for interesting stories and anecdotes.
Repeating from the DVD but making a maximum impact is Craig McCall's docu piece Painting with Light, a visually adept analysis of Jack Cardiff's contribution to Black Narcissus that stresses the cameraman's commitment to values learned from classical paintings. Originally assembled at feature-length, the docu may have evolved into Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, which McCall premiered at Cannes in 2010.
The insert essay by Kent Jones points out the mixed reception given Black Narcissus in 1947, when the usually perceptive critic James Agee dismissed the film as nothing more than a "dramatic exploitation of celibacy as an opportunity for titillation in the best of taste." It's a good thing Agee didn't live to see Ken Russell's The Devils.
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Black Narcissus Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.