Criterion // 1947 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // July 20th, 2010
Another masterpiece from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger gets a masterful Blu-ray treatment from Criterion.
Five British nuns from Calcutta are sent by their order to a Himalayan village where they will set up a convent and provide spiritual, educational, and medical services for the locals. The mission is led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, From Here to Eternity), and this makes her the youngest Sister Superior in her order. The nuns will make their home in an old palace where, years before, the sultan kept his women.
Not long after they arrive, the sisters find themselves having trouble adjusting. The majestic mountains and clear air seem to overwhelm them, and there's something about the place that's evoking memories, particularly for Sister Clodagh, of their lives before they took the vow.
Complicating matters: the rugged Mr. Dean (David Farrar, Escape to Burma), a British man local, whose nonchalant virility causes consternation among the women; a sensuous and beautiful Indian teen ager (Jean Simmons, Elmer Gantry), sent to live with the nuns; the Young General (Sabu, The Thief of Bagdad), heir to the land, who looks to the nuns to help him learn how to become an educated, Christian gentleman; and the deranged Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, Burn, Witch, Burn!), whose instability creates tensions within the convent.
Visually striking and dramatically sublime, Black Narcissus is a beautiful work of art. A haunting reflection on spirituality and human nature, this is Powell and Pressburger at the top of their games. Atmospheric, unsettling, and erotic, it's a challenging, rewarding viewing experience.
There's a keen sense of tension throughout the film that's established in the opening scenes, when Sister Clodagh is given her assignment. Her own superior is not happy that Clodagh has been chosen, believing she's not ready. We also learn that a group of brothers had tried a similar mission not long before, and failed, abandoning the place after a few months. The somber, disapproving old nun is contrasted with Angu Ayah (May Hallatt, Separate Tables), the earthy old peasant woman who cares for the palace and who also disapproves -- Angu Ayah would like the palace to again become a "house of women," but not these women. She is a life force, reveling in the decrepit building and its scandalous history, giving us the first hint that it's a place of evoked memory.
The nuns find themselves at odds almost immediately. While they are enthusiastic -- almost blindly so -- they are ill-equipped to deal with the locals, who, Mr. Dean keeps reminding them, are like "children," not a little ironic given that the Indian state was about to become emancipated from Britain.
Sister Clodagh tries to maintain order, but the nuns become sick and irritable, the environment seeming to have a life of its own. They try to keep hold on their purpose and pray for guidance, but their sense of spirituality seems quaint when compared to the holy man who stays on their land, keeping his silent position always. Sights, sounds, smells -- including the Young General's Black Narcissus cologne -- become externalized distractions that seem to conspire against these women, pulling them out of their purpose and conjuring memories too vivid of the secular world they'd left behind.
With their pale skin and drab habits, the nuns seem to fade next to the colorfully dressed villagers and the grandiose natural surroundings. Surprisingly, given the magnificence of the scenery, almost the entire film was shot at a studio. The majestic mountain vistas were created by production designer Alfred Junge (Knights of the Round Table), who won an Oscar for his work here, as did cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Junge, Cardiff, and Powell work with light, color, and frame to create an extraordinary looking film. It is a remarkable collection of images -- Sister Ruth's red rimmed eyes, later giving way to a scarlet mouth, a garden awash in color, a breathtaking shot of a young woman standing in an ice-blue stream -- and sounds -- a drumbeat vigil for a dying child, the rushing of the clear wind, and an eerie silence when the locals have turned against the sisters.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Kerr giving one of her best performances as the conflicted Sister Clodagh. Swathed in her habit, Kerr uses her large, expressive eyes and subtle facial gestures to convey emotion. She's a model of restraint, outwardly, but thanks to Kerr's delicate performance and some poignant flashbacks, we understand her inner conflicts. She gets great support from her co-stars, including the sexy, rough-hewn Farrar and the radiant young Simmons. Sabu is charming as the earnest Young General.
The actresses playing Kerr's fellow nuns are memorable. Of particular note are Flora Robson as the older Sister Philippa, who is so overcome by her new surroundings that she finds herself planting a garden of bright flowers instead of much-needed vegetables; and Byron, whose portrait of a woman in down-spiral is nothing short of terrifying.
Criterion released Black Narcissus on DVD in 2001. This Blu-ray offers an improved image and some nice new supplements.
The image here is overall quite strong. It's very film-looking, with a fine grain and generally excellent detail. There's a bit of softness here and there, but nothing you wouldn't expect from a film of its. Colors are excellent -- the more vibrant the color, the better it is represented here. The audio is the original mono remastered in PCM, and it's a really well-done track, virtually free of any hiss or distortion. Voices are clear, and the music is strong without sounding artificially enhanced.
The disc sports a good selection of supplemental material, starting with a commentary with Michael Powell and Martin Scorsese. This track was recorded for the Criterion laserdisc in 1988 and was featured on the previous release of Black Narcissus. It's a very good track, Scorsese's enthusiasm balancing nicely with Powell's more quiet recollections. Also ported over: Painting with Light, a documentary about Jack Cardiff's work on the film.
Other supplements new to the Criterion were featured on a 2006 French DVD release. Filmmaker Bernard Tavernier ('Round Midnight) offers an informative nine-minute introduction to the film, and in a 17-minute interview, "The Audacious Adventurer," talks about the film and Powell, who was a friend of his. "Profile of Black Narcissus" is a 25-minute retrospective with Jack Cardiff, Kathleen Byron, and others involved in the production. Rounding out the video supplements is the trailer. Also included is a 24-page illustrated booklet with an essay by film writer Kent Jones. The essay by Dave Kehr, which was included in Criterion's 2001 release, is not here, but I've linked it in the sidebar.
I'd read some reviews about Criterion's work on the image here, and they were all overwhelmingly positive. Overall, I think it's a very strong image, but I noted a few problems, mainly with whites, unfortunate, since the nuns' white habits are featured prominently throughout the film. In some scenes -- mainly the ones inside the Himalayan convent, there's an odd, subtle shimmy around them with a purplish-green hue. There's also some color pulsation on the white walls, and shadows occasionally cast green, most noticeably in a scene near the end where, for a couple of seconds, Sister Clodagh's shadowed face takes on an unnatural color.
At most, these moments are a little distracting; had I not been watching this Blu ray for purposes of review, I would have barely noticed. These problems might also be inherent in the film, as they turn up in the clips used in the supplemental material.
One of the most visually beautiful films ever made and a deeply satisfying adult drama. The Blu-ray looks great, and the supplements go a long way to appreciating the film. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1947
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Black Narcissus
* IMDb: A Profile of Black Narcissus
* IMDb: Painting with Light
* Dave Kehr Essay
* Ronald Haver Essay