Thursday, October 9, 2008

BLACK NARCISSUS (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947, UK) Powell and Pressburger’s spring-wound sexual tension is released in a smear of red lipstick and a brutal fall from grace. The restless ghost of the Himalayas haunts the convent, a subversive spirit whose passionate breath begins to melt the Sister’s frigid facades. Filmed in beautiful Technicolor, the nuns are clad in white and drained of all color, while the native population is adorned in vivid saris and jewelry. This drastic contrast indicates the clash of cultures, values, and religion without needles exposition, creating a subliminal conflict of assimilation. Sister Clodagh is in charge of the school, assigned by the Church to leave Britain and come to this country and teach the Indian people how to live, what to think, and become more human: not to help them but to change them, to mold them in their own image. But the nuns have secret human desires of their own, repressed and simmering under their cold veneer of superiority. A British Agent named Dean lives in the village, accepted by the locals because he lives among them…not above them. But his presence awakens the hot burning fires of passion that lurk within Sister Clodagh and the already unstable Sister Ruth. The dialogue is ripe with innuendo and subtext peeling away layer after layer to revel in the naked human truth of desire: Ruth’s makeup is an act of sedition and seduction, dramatically revealing her true face…instead of hiding it. Jealousy, anger, and lust are honest human emotions but denied too long, they can become self-destructive. The scene at the bell tower is a pulse-pounding climax whose final release is spattered upon the rocks below, the tension spent amid a one nun’s graceless demise. As the zealous Sisters abandon the convent, they leave behind only the lingering sweet smell of perfume to cover the stink of their failure. But the nun’s debacle is the people’s spiritual victory. (A)


Rupert Alistair said...

Excellent post on one of my favourite films! Your concise synopsis touched on so much of the nuance of the movie. Special mention for Kathleen Byron as the mad Sister Ruth, outstanding performance. Thanks for sharing.


smarthotoldlady said...

When I tried to teach this in a film course for college seniors, they derided the overdramatic scenes, made fun of the excessive emotions and even found some scenes reminiscent of the wicked stepmother in Snow White. I never showed it again. I always loved this movie, and so did Martin Scorsese, and, in light of the drekky overdone action flicks today's youth can't get enough of, I still find their reactions to this movie inexplicable. Or, maybe not quite. Since the 60's, emotion is very toned down in movies. People don't give vent to wild emotion nor do they get swept up in love or even patriotism, much less religion. Young people are used to Clint Eastwood and Susan Sarandon, sardonic but understated. The cultural change has to be taken in consideration when evaluating old movies or new ones. Who today would play a scene as dramatically as George Arliss did, for instance?