Black Narcissus (1947)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Black Narcissus</strong> (1947)

(On Cable TV, July 2018) I’m not quite sure what I expected from a forties “nuns set up a school/hospital in the Himalayas” film (something with nuns and Nazis?), but Black Narcissus exceeded my expectations to deliver something I couldn’t have imagined. It is about nuns setting up a school/hospital in an abandoned building at the base of the Himalayas. But it is also about a man setting off erotic jealousy among the nuns, and Englishwomen thinking themselves at the vanguard of civilization being utterly defeated by India. It ends up with a nun casting off her habits, putting on lipstick, attempting the seduction the only white man within walking distance and trying to kill her superior. Considering that his film was made in 1947 England, you can imagine that it did push a few boundaries. Black Narcissus was ahead of its time in at least another aspect—the Oscar-winning colour cinematography is impressive, with bright colours and subdued tones orchestrated in a conscious effect. The film wasn’t shot on location despite impressively deceptive trompe-l’oeuils. Oh, there are certainly a bunch of issues with the film. Shot and released shortly before Indian independence, the film is redolent with colonialist rhetoric, and features at least two performers in brownface. (Much as I’d like to praise Jean Simmons for her role, there’s no getting around that she’s a white girl playing an Indian girl under layers of makeup.)  Still, as noted, the ending finds the British nuns retreating from India, completely defeated. More interesting is the romantic triangle between two nuns (Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron) and a local fixer played by David Farrar. Byron is particularly striking once she removes her robe and goes on a rampage toward the end of the film—an authentically shocking moment that almost pushes the film toward horror. By the end, Black Narcissus delivers quite a bit more than what we could have expected from post-war English movies. It’s quite a surprise, and thanks to Jack Cardiff’s cinematography it’s still worth a look today.

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