"Black Narcissus" DVD, Blu-ray Review

7/30/2010 Posted by Admin

"Black Narcissus"

DVD, Blu-ray Review

Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Written by Powell and Pressburger, 100 Minutes, Not Rated

By our guest blogger, Rob Stammitti

The filmmaking duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger have long been among the most highly regarded filmmakers to come out of the United Kingdom. They're well known for the pure spectacle of their productions, and their fantastic 1947 film, "Black Narcissus," is a fine display of what brought the pair such universal notoriety.

A young English nun, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), is tasked with leading a new nunnery in an abandoned palace in the middle of a Himalayan valley. Accompanied by four others, Sister Philippa (Flora Robson), Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), Sister Briony (Judith Furse) and Sister Honey (Jenny Laird), Clodagh accepts the job, despite urges to stay away from Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the only British proprietor of the nearby village. The nuns have been invited by an old general who leads the village, and they are one of many groups who have come and gone from the fortress, for reasons unknown.

As we're introduced to Clodagh and her new surroundings, we also meet a variety of other colorful characters. There's the general's charismatic and gentle grandson, known simply as the Young General, who seeks an education under the nuns despite their vow to only teach children and young girls. Mr. Dean requests that the nuns take in Kanchi, a young woman of the village who has not yet taken on a husband and requires a home and education. A romance develops between Kanchi and the Young General that serves as a more positive backdrop to the bleak and troubling events surrounding Clodagh and her convent.

Powell and Pressburger are best known for the vibrancy of their productions, and it serves a very distinct purpose beyond spectacle in this film. The beauty of their landscapes (which are actually just painted backgrounds on sets), the warmth and color of the townspeople and their jewels and clothing, and even things as simple as the make-up on Kanchi or some of the other female characters outside of the convent serve as a reminder of how colorless a life the nuns live. They are forced to stare out into the landscapes of the Himalayas, reminded of the lives and beauty they've left behind, and it slowly but surely drives them mad.

It seems at first that Mr. Dean's insistence that the nuns not open a convent in the palace is a purely selfish one--that he's happy with the simplicity of the villagers and he can revel in his pure hedonism without distraction. But early on it becomes clear that Dean is acting from experience--we're told that other spiritual groups have come to the palace and left rather quickly, and eventually it makes sense. The palace and its surroundings too easily shake to the core those who are weak enough in their faith that they doubt the vows they've taken. Clodagh and the other sisters come from a plain and simple convent into this lush and otherworldly place and the culture of the villagers is quick to make them doubt the foundations of their beliefs.

The film is really an emotional powerhouse, and the distinctive set design and style often acts as its own character within the ever-spiraling psychodrama. The performances, while simple and low-key (outside of Byron's rather hammy performance), are very moving, and the performances mixed with the unbelievably gorgeous direction and sets forms into a perfect mold. Pure Hollywood spectacle, despite being made outside of the U.S. and the studio system of the time.

Grade: B+

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