Thursday, November 12, 2020

#2,521. Black Narcissus (1947) - The Films of Michael Powell

Black Narcissus was filmed entirely within the confines of England’s Pinewood Studios. Watch the movie, and I guarantee you’ll find this tidbit of trivia as amazing as I did. With its gorgeous colors and setting high atop the Himalayan Mountains, you'd swear the film was shot on-location in India or Tibet. 

This is but one of the movie’s many strengths. Black Narcissus is a beautiful, frightening, incredibly moving motion picture, with flawless performances and two skilled filmmakers (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) at the helm, turning out what I consider to be their masterpiece. 

The story centers on a group of Anglican nuns who have been invited by the Rajput (the ruler of the local Indian community) to establish a school and hospital to serve his people. Given a building (a former harem) situated on a sheer cliff in the Himalayas and under the guidance of newly appointed Mother Superior Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the sisters get to work immediately. 

Warned by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an aide of General Dilip Rai (played by Sabu, star of - among others - 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad), that the customs in this area of the world are different from anything they may have experienced before, Sister Clodagh and her order nonetheless are determined to make a go of it. It isn’t long, however, before troubles with the locals, combined with the beauty of their surroundings, cause the sisters to lose sight of their objective, and question whether they made the right decision taking up residence in this remote corner of the globe. 

The nuns and their experiences in this far-off land are what give Black Narcissus its energy, with each sister experiencing a strange combination of sexual repression and spiritual conflict that is compounded by their picturesque environment. Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh takes her position quite seriously, yet the beauty of this area reawakens memories of a past romance, which we see several times in flashbacks. As for Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), she falls in love with Mr Dean so deeply that she begins to see Sister Clodagh (who deals with Dean on an almost-daily basis) as a potential rival for his affections, and it’s more than her mind can handle. Even Flora Robsen’s Sister Philippa, the oldest in their order, is taken in by the landscape and the simplicity of the people.

The palace that serves as their home also works against them. Built years earlier by the then-Prince for his harem, Sister Clodagh and her order had hoped to transform it into a holy place, an institute of learning and care that would bring the indigenous population closer to God. But the ghosts of the building’s past are strong indeed, causing a spiritual crisis within each and every one of the good sisters. 

The performances are superb, from Deborah Kerr’s controlled yet emotional turn as Sister Clodagh to Kathleen Byron’s occasionally manic take on Sister Ruth. Also quite good in a supporting role is Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl who, after being caught stealing, is brought to the convent and turned over to the sisters. Equally as remarkable is the cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who won an Oscar for his work here. Cardiff shoots a late scene in the bell tower in such a way as to make it positively nerve-racking. Black Narcissus also netted an Academy Award for Alfred Junge’s Art Design and Set Decoration, both of which convince us that we’ve been whisked away to an exotic locale. 

All of these elements - along with a profoundly emotional story - work in unison to make Black Narcissus an undisputed cinematic classic. 
Rating: 10 out of 10 - add it to your collection immediately!

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