Thursday, April 3, 2008

Black Narcissus

I watched this superb film recently. Black Narcissus (1947) comes from The Archers' stable, the production team formed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They made many other wonderful movies: The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter Of Life And Death, Gone To Earth...and many more.

Black Narcissus tells a simple story of Sister Clodagh and four other nuns, who attempt to establish a new convent in the old palace of Mopu in Darjeeling. As a former harem the palace is steeped in sensuality, as a convent it is beset by the constant winds and high altitude.

The film is shot in marvelous technicolour by Jack Cardiff. The lighting is brilliant; it is as though black and white has been hand coloured. The photography of the religious elements is subdued and subtle whilst the mad, wild sexuality of the ex-Sister Ruth is violently vibrant.

Sister Ruth is horribly crazed. The moment when she loses all grip of reality is rather frightening, such is the tenacity with which we hold on to Sister Clodagh's (below, with Mr Dean) desire to be good. Deborah Kerr is exquisitely, frigidly, tormented in her role as Mother Superior. David Farrer, a rather charming - if louche - agent, is perfect as her foil and devilish conscience.

Establishing the convent in such a hostile environment proves impossible. The nuns want to change the way the Himalayan people live; they believe they are doing good. Instead of responding to the mountains and the environment, the nuns attempt to tame it. The power of the place torments them and denudes them of their faith and good judgement.

With today's eyes, yes, of course, we can find fault: nearly all the indigenous parts are played by white actors wearing make-up, it was made in a studio and the intensity of the mood is, at first, overwhelming.
But if you give yourself up to it, if you allow it to speak to you and to tell you it's tale, you will be prompted to think of love, duty, desire, madness, beauty, place, colonialism and memory. It's a very fine film.

And by the way, there are some very funny scenes involving Mr Dean's sculptured physique astride a very small Himalayan pony.

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