Shot in striking Technicolor against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayan mountains, Black Narcissus is a tale of temptation, sensuality, jealousy, and crisis within an order of British nuns doing missionary work in rural India. The stark, bleak and often disturbing nature of the story and the cloistered environment of the convent is directly contrasted by the beauty of the outdoor surroundings, and the sensuality of the story has as much to do with the magnificent land as it has with the physical temptation of the Brisith agent Dean, around whom most of the story revolves. The film was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, taken from a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden. Black Narcissus plays out very much like a novel, with supreme use of symbolism and metaphor that casts serious doubt on the institution of Catholicism, a huge risk for a movie made under the Hays Code.
The story concerns itself with a group of Anglican nuns who journey to India in order to set up a hospital and school, with the ultimate intention to convert the native population to Catholicism. They have to deal with the dominant Hindu culture and the ethereal presence of a mystical old wise man on their property, whom they want to move, but none of the locals dare move him. This, to me, signifies the connection of the locals to their land and their resistance to give up the old ways to Catholicism. Interestingly, the scene where Sister Superior Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) tries to get him to move, she is the one portrayed as the ignorant character–and not the other way around. Under the Hays Code (which codified Catholic morality into moviemaking), this was daring decision on the part of Powell and Pressburger.
Soon, a British agent by the name of Mr. Dean becomes a regular visitor to the convent, much to the chagrin of the nuns, who consider him obscene and offensive, especially when he shows up drunk to Christmas mass. He does, however, charm one nun by the name of Sister Ruth, and the Sister Superior Clodagh becomes worried about his appeal to her and Sister Ruth’s increasingly strange behavior. There is one scene in which Sister Clodagh calls Sister Ruth into her room, and begins to question her about her state. The scene occurs about an hour into the film, and is the beginning of the very disturbing turns this movie takes.
As Sister Ruth is questioned, little by little she begins to shake, and her mouth turns upward into a demonic smile while her eyes remain fixed on Sister Clodagh. It is an intensely disturbing image, and she looks as though she is possessed, either by a demon or by the demons of her own mind. Juxtaposed with the white, virginal habit surrounding her face, it is not only a shock to the viewer’s sensibilities, but is a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the penetration of evil into the world of the convent.
From that scene forward, Sister Ruth is often shot in hues of red, symbolizing the idea that Sister Ruth is demonic, an incarnation of the devil. As the film progresses and she becomes stranger and stranger, more red is used. For fear of giving anything away, here is one of the final scenes of the movie:
The conclusion is a violent descent into madness on the part of Sister Ruth, which closes with a final collision of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Himalayan mountains. I will not say any more than that about the ending, because it is an absolutely stunning finale that you have to see in order to take in its full effect.
Though the film took place in India, the production was entirely British–with backdrop paintings of the Himalayas substituting for location shots. The majority of filming took place at Pinewood Studios, with some mountain scenes shot in West Sussex. Nonetheless, the film succeeds masterfully in its depiction of the mountains, and the Technicolor is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. I often say that the two most beautifully shot Technicolor movies I’ve ever seen are Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes–both British movies that make heavy use of the color red in their filming.
I leave you with the trailer. To say that Black Narcissus is a masterpiece is a vast understatement. It is a truly magnificent piece of filmmaking that I think everyone interested in film should see. Some scenes are not easy to stomach, but it was a film ahead of its time, and many of those scenes look like they came out of a modern-day thriller, instead of a British drama made 65 years ago. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to.
Thanks for reading!