#193. Black Narcissus (1946)

I went through a kick in high school, early college, of ordering blaxploitation movies through Netflix. Got Blacula — which I loved so much that I bought it in a box set with the sequel, Scream, Blacula, Scream, and forced them both on college friends — and Black Caesar and Superfly and Slaughter. I’m forgetting some. But I remember coming across this title later on and wondering how I’d missed it during that little marathon.

Well, as I learned this weekend, it’s because Black Narcissus is about a group of white English nuns who go to serve in Calcutta. Just about the farthest a premise can get from blaxploitation.

And yet, though I don’t suppose this was directors’ Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s intention, there’s a trace of exploitation cinema here, just the faintest flavor of it.

Black Narcissus is about these nuns setting up shop in a big house near the top of a mountain where, among other things, they intend to provide schooling and medical services for the natives. The nuns are overseen by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), who’s young for a sister supreme (love that title) and in whose abilities to manage such a venture her superior is in grave and candid doubt. Because it’s not like they’re throwing their tent up anywhere. The mountain where they’ll be working is a monster. Insanely difficult terrain. Winds are vicious and nights are freezing and they’re getting weird splotches on their skin. Everybody has different feelings about their engagements with the natives — all of whom seem pretty indifferent to the nuns’ presence, equating it to the recent (brief) tenure of a group of monks who bailed on account of the miserable conditions.

So much stress starts turning the nuns against one another. There’s a Lord of the Flies vibe. They start to question their faith, the lifestyle, their aptiude for the role. Temptation creeps up on them in the form of a dashing and strong-jawed ENglishman who lives among the natives. 

The story is interesting and well-told, the cast is uniformly terrific, but the standout attribute of Black Narcissus is its technicolor beauty. The mat paintings of various mountainscapes and forests are gorgeously defined by both the painting hand and the use of lighting. I think this is the seventh movie on the List made entirely in color and, beautiful though the others surely were (The Adventures of Robin Hood in particular looked like a coloring book brought to life), Black Narcissus is the first one to get me thinking seriously about the use of lighting in color, the fact that it poses different obstacles from lighting in a black and white flick. So I guess there must’ve been a liberating idea of all the shit one could achieve with a colored palate, but I wouldn’t have expected there to be such radical innovation and creativity with it so early on. I remember being dazzled by how creatively Hitchcock used sound in Blackmail, the first British talkie, and felt the same thing: wouldn’t most filmmakers have just been testing the waters with this technology at first? Using it for technical benefit, mastering it, and THEN twisting it toward creative uses?

It’s nice to think that, however new or complicated or radical a piece of technology is, there’ll be a craftsman somewhere who immediately makes art of it. 

I learned yesterday, while listening to a podcast wherin he’s interviewed by fellow director Michael Mann, that Ridley Scott went to art school for painting — which automatically got me musing on the idea that he was slated to be wealthy no matter what, reflexively assuming that all trained painters are rich because they can sell their work for arbitrarily vast sums. But of course they don’t all become rich. I don’t suppose any profession can ever really guarantee that a practitioner will become wealthy. The reason I have that immediate impression is cuz it seems like the two friends of mine from high school who’ve gone on to have the most success (the ones who also appear to be the most contented) are both painters. One’s a little crazy, but super cool. 

Anyway: back to Ridley Scott. So Michael Mann is riffing in this interview on how great Scott is at his craft and points out that the density of material in Scott’s shots are the product of a painter’s sensibility. The attention to detail of like the shit that’s scattered on a desk in the background. 

There seems to be a similar density to the shots in Black Narcissus, it always seems like there’s a lot going on — but on closer inspection you fidn that the sets are pretty sparse. It’s the lighting that makes it look busy. A spectrum of colors in a given shot. Also the detail accorded to the backgrounds. The patterns of snow on the moubntain, or the wallpaper’s patterning.

The movie’s a lesson in visual composition.

As for the story: the most captivating element is how the nuns’ relation to their duties begins to change. The one who’s supposed to grow food in the garden begins to grow flowers instead. The nurse freezes up and refuses to provide aid for an ailing baby, who later dies.

This is the necessary nun-gone-rogue

And then there’s sexual temptation. Two of the sisters, one being the supreme, fall for ch/act. We get flashbacks to the life that the supreme led as a civilian before joining the Order. She was in love with a wealthy young man who ditched her. She’s beautiful and vibrant and happy in these flashbacks. A stark contrast against her dutiful plainness in the Order. The air of grief. You get a vibe that she only became a nun to get away from something. So there’s this vibe like she doesn’t belong here, doesn’t actually wanna be here, and so when a bit of exposition tells us that the nuns of this particular order don’t make a pledge for life but, rather renew their pledge on a yearly basis it seems like she’s got an exit. Like she can fall in love with this dude and then pursue that love without compromising her vows. 

But it doens’t happen. There are fewer nuns at the end of the movie than there were at the start of it but Sister Superior is still one of them. She’s leaving the house on the mountian and we learnt hat, when she returns to her church, she’ll be demoted, and relocated yet again, with fewer responsibilities. Her vow to humility forces her to smile about it.

SHe’s relaying the whole thing to (ch) in a tender exchange as she’s leaving. Both look defeated. Two people whose responsibilities, duties to which they bear a troubled allegiance, keep them from being together. It’s noble, but hurts to watch. I found myself thinking of the church as this evil, confining entity that stifles her. But it’s not. It’s she who’s locking herself away in it. 

Is this a British thing? I notice that Brief Encounter and A Matter of Life and Death and I Know What I Want, three recent English works from the List, all feature people whose professional obligations prevent them from pursuing personal (romantic) passions. It’s certainly in keeping with the stereotype of a mannered Londoner with a stiff upper lip, refined and cerebral, quite capable of putting duty above passion thank you very much.

Either way: powerful stuff ehre. 

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