many, the Himalayas are a region of fundamental spiritual significance. In contrast, an order of Anglican nuns will
find their faith deeply shaken by their ill-fated assignment to a remote Indian
mountain. Altitude, isolation, and angst
wreck havoc on the sisters’ esprit de corps in Michael Powell & Emeric
Pressburger’s newly restored Black
opens this Friday at Film Forum, inaugurating the New Year with a classic
worthy of the big screen.
atop a forbidding peak, a prince once built a palace for his harem. Standing like a monument to the kingdom’s
faded glory, only an eccentric old caretaker lives there, with her birds and
the ghosts of bygone days. Periodically,
the local general entices westerners up to the palace. An order of monks tried to make a go of it
there, but soon slinked off in humiliated defeat. The nuns are determined to do better.
Faith will be a convent, school, and medical clinic serving the needs of the
local villagers. Sister Clodagh will be
the mother superior, the youngest in the history of her order—a fact she is
well aware of. She will be taking a
handful of sisters with her, including the matronly Sister Briony and the
troubled Sister. It is Mother Dorothea’s
hope Ruth better thrives in a smaller group.
Right, that sounds plausible. Either
way, she is Sister Clodagh’s problem now—she will indeed be a burden.
soon as she lays eyes on the General’s western business agent, Mr. Dean, she
displays an inclination to act out. The confines
of the wind-buffeted palace 9,000 above sea-level only exacerbate her erratic
behavior. However, the strange environment affects all the sisters, bringing
back all the old memories they thought they had successfully buried.
on Rumer Godden’s novel, Narcissus in
many ways operates as cautionary corrective to the colonialist impulse. Though never overtly supernatural, there
seems be ancient energies surrounding the convent-palace that are stronger than
the sisters’ faith. Filmed old school
style entirely on specially built studio sets, Narcissus has an eerie, almost fantastical vibe. Academy Award winning set designer Alfred
Junge’s Himalayan backdrops might just be the most effective matte paintings
used in cinema until Ralph McQuarrie’s classic work graced the original Star Wars. Still arguably the greatest Technicolor
cinematographer, Jack Cardiff was probably the only DP working at the time
capable of rendering Narcissus’s lush
colors and evocative lighting.
cast is pretty great too, starting with Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh. The way her relationship with David Farrar’s
Mr. Dean evolves from mutual contempt into a painful regret and yearning is
quietly compelling. However, his 1970’s
NBA short shorts are just all kinds of disturbing—and inappropriate given the
Himalayan climate. The unforgettable Kathleen
Byron is a proverbial hot mess as Sister Ruth, while Dame Flora Robson adds a
genuine note of pathos as the gentle Sister Philippa.
deeper than the Lost Horizon-ish
exoticism some might expect, Black
Narcissus really is a great film. It
is also a masterful example of how mood can be controlled through visual
artistry. Highly recommended, the 4K
restoration runs for a week (1/4-1/10) at Film Forum in New York. Happy New Year.
Labels: Emeric Pressburger, Jack Cardiff, Michael Powell