Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Black Narcissus - Film Review

If  a cinema lover had to choose their favourite dark film concerning hysterical nuns, there is no doubt this would make the cut. The 1947 film Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a movie to be viewed with a broad mind and a keen eye. As metaphors and symbols are littered across shots in this tale of sexually frustrated nuns, your thoughts turn to wondering what Powell and Pressburger wanted the audience to notice. Black Narcissus follows the story of a covenant of nuns as they move to a historic palace high in the mountains with intentions to improve the surrounding natives lives. Soon after moving into the palace, the altitude and atmosphere begins to bear its toll on the driven nuns and they begin to ponder on the lives and experiences they could so guilt fully be enjoying if their devotion was not completely to God. We see Sister Clodaugh (Deborah Kerr) shepherd her flock of nuns to the best of her abilities through the effects of reclusion and herd them back into their Christ loving ways. However it cannot be said that sister Clodaugh's efforts are totally successful as we see Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) succumb to her urges and renounce her love from God, Converting back to her old ways. Soon after this transformation we see Ruth pursue her interest in the charming yet somehow sarcastic character of Mr. Dean (David Farrar), where she is brutally rejected. This rejection leads her back into the palace of the nunnery where she intends to murder Clodaugh, however she fails, and falls from the cliff that supports the palace.

Fig 1: Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus is a film which relishes in the idea of a viewer doing some of the work for themselves, only the most shrewd observer would notice some of the more theme enhancing aesthetics. It is true that in many shots the nuns longing for freedom could be interpreted, as we see members of the nunnery ringing the large bell on the cliff edge wishfully, the mind strays to images of confinement and pain. However this could also been seen as a way of presenting the nuns longing for a male companion as the bell represents a certain aspect of male genitalia, Peter Bradshaw describes the area the are living in as being "complete with erotic frescos" (Bradshaw, 2005). Another big slice of symbolism which is present from the very birth of the film is the idea of the nuns constantly being on the edge, possibly showing how the nuns are pushed to their limits whilst following their practises, as they spend the majority of the film literally inhabiting a palace on the very edge of a mountain.
Fig 2: Black Narcissus

It is also interesting to note that the members of the nunnery that are chosen to go to work in the secluded palace are chosen because of different aspects of their personality, one for her strength, one for her popularity, one for her gardening abilities, one to be the leader and one because she is ill. This could possibly be interpreted as a way of showing how no member of the nunnery is fully capable of success without another's help, possibly showing the negative effects of relying so strongly on God and how it is starting to chip away at their lives. This idea of the nuns struggle being present throughout the film has also been thought by others, with Roger Ebert stating that "Their inner turmoil is exacerbated by extreme conditions and isolation" (Ebert, 2010). This only supports the idea of the palace itself as being a cocoon for the nuns to shed their faith and develop doubt.

Fig 3: Black Narcissus
Another interesting point to think about after viewing Black Narcissus is that even after the nuns reliance on God has shown to cause members of the nunnery to crumble and in one case even attempt murder, the film itself still closes showing religion in a positive light. As the remaining members of the nunnery leave the palace in the mountains, clouds cover the screen blocking the palace from view and leading the viewer with a negative opinion on the effects the palace has had on the inhabiting characters, rather than their religious lifestyle choices. This is interesting as it forces the audience to see the palace the nuns are working in as the villain of the film, turning nuns from their faith, when another angle to view this from could be that the palace actually frees the nuns from the shackles of their faith.
Black Narcissus is truly a film to be watched with intent to find symbols, metaphors and trailing endless theories, as shots lend themselves to being interpreted differently by different kinds of viewers. The film itself has been described as "a work of rare pictorial beauty" (Pryor, 1947) which seems a very fitting way to describe the surroundings and a number of shots throughout this tale of hysterical nuns. This film has without a doubt left viewers to ponder over its intentions and the messages that run throughout for many years, and there is no doubt that it will continue to do so for many years to come.
Bradshaw, Peter, 2005, Black Narcissus, http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2005/aug/05/3 Accessed on 10/11/15
Ebert, Roger, 2010, "Black Narcissus, Which Electrified Scorsese,
Accessed on 10/11/15
Pryor, Thomas, M, 1947, Black Narcissus, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=EE05E7DF173CE261BC4C52DFBE66838C659EDE Accessed on 10/11/15
Illustration List
Fig 1: Poster, Black Narcissus, http://m.flicks.co.nz/movie/black-narcissus/poster/ Accessed on 10/11/15
Fig 2: Screenshot, Black Narcissus, http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2013/7/9/top-ten-1940s.html Accessed on 10/11/15
Fig 3: Screenshot, Black Narcissus, https://www.criterion.com/films/632-black-narcissus Accessed on 10/11/15

1 comment:

  1. 'If a cinema lover had to choose their favourite dark film concerning hysterical nuns, there is no doubt this would make the cut.' Hehehehe! I know it is top of my list of hysterical nun films :)

    Don't forget to italicise your film names and quotes, Lewis. Also, it might have been good to explore the production design a little more - the use of the matte painting to extend the scene, for example.

    Other than that, a very enjoyable read! :D