When a film has been awarded Oscars for art direction and cinematography, one expects a movie that is, if not great, great to view. Black Narcissus, with its spectacular shots of the Himalayas, is somewhat of a poser—it was mostly made at Pinewood Studios and extensively used matte paintings, large scale landscape paintings of mountains, and scale models. Alas, the mountains were merely painted on glass. From its opening tone-on-tone shot of a nun gazing out a window, it is filled with images that imprint themselves on the viewer’s memory, if only for a short time.
Made in 1947, Black Narcissus is filled with odd characters (not quite ethnic stereotypes, they are more caricatures). It is the tale of a small group of nuns who are moved to a “palace” once built for concubines (at an elevation of 9000 feet, where winds blow continuously), and are charged with establishing a school and hospital. The young sister superior (Deborah Kerr) is immediately at odds with the rude Englishman (David Farrar) who is agent for the “old general,” the local leader who appears to be royalty.
The nuns battle sickness, memories, suspicion, jealousy, internal conflict, even madness. Sister Superior is disturbed by the clear air, constant winds, and a holy man encamped on the convent’s grounds. When she professes to the Englishman that she doesn’t know what to do, he asks, “What would Christ have done?”
Matters are complicated by the arrival of two very different people, a 17- year-old girl who is, at best, “on the make” (Jean Simmons in terrible dark makeup), and the “young general” (a prince-like personage) who has come for an education, first turned away because the convent teaches only children and young women. Being of similar age and opposite sex, these two are bound to make sparks.
How well does Black Narcissus hold up after 63 years? It’s melodramatic, reflects attitudes that are no longer accepted (one nun speaks of the local people: “they all look alike to me”), and it seems to have a split personality. The first half of the film is blandly banal, but once the nuns begin to feel stress from their new environment and succumb to their own flaws, the film gets interesting. Starring legendary actresses Deborah Kerr (looking impossibly lovely), Flora Robson, and Jean Simmons, its cast does an admirable job of defining the characters and giving the story life. Michael Powell described it as “the most erotic film that I have ever made,” and the eroticism cannot be denied, whether base, refined, or stifled.
At times the score is overpowering and distracting. Although the palace itself is worthy of note, the outdoor sets are fake and disappointing. In viewing Black Narcissus, it might be best to think of it in terms of an interesting oddity (to allow release in the United States, the Legion of Decency demanded that scenes of remembered romance be edited out), rather than the masterwork many believe it to be.
In addition to the handsome booklet included with Black Narcissus, DVD special features are a video introduction by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier; audio commentary with guest Martin Scorsese; the original theatrical trailer; “The Audacious Adventurer,” in which Tavernier discusses the film; and two documentaries, Profile of Black Narcissus and Painting with Light.