Black Narcissus: Criterion Collection
July 21, 2010
Black Narcissus (1947) was based on Rumer Godden’s 1934 novel of the same name about her experiences in India. It was made into an uncharacteristically sensual film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and featured an impressive Technicolor look thanks to Jack Cardiff’s expressive cinematography.
Sister Clodagh (Kerr) has been put in charge of the newly christened St. Faith, formerly the Palace of Mopu, in a mountainous region of India that is 8,000 feet up with nearby peaks almost as high as Mount Everest. The palace has been abandoned for some time and is surrounded by rather harsh weather. As a result of this appointment, Clodagh has become the youngest Sister Superior in her order. She has been entrusted to set up a school and a hospital for the locals. Accompanying her is Sister Philippa (Robson) to help with the gardening, Sister Honey (Laird) who is quite popular, and Sister Ruth (Byron) who is of poor health. Clodagh is instructed to work her nuns hard as dictated by their order.
Once she arrives at St. Faith, Clodagh meets Mr. Dean (Farrar), the liaison between nuns and the locals. Her all-business behaviour clashes with his snarky attitude. Things get off to a rocky start as the nuns are inundated with locals – children for the school and patients for the hospital. The odds are certainly against Clodagh and her nuns but they press on regardless. At one point, they take in Kanchi (Simmons), a beautiful local girl and a troublemaker in her own right. Her own village doesn’t even want her and Dean dryly observes that it’s the nuns’ job to save souls.
The cast do an excellent job of bringing these colourful characters to life. There’s the determined nature of Sister Clodagh, the rugged self-confidence of Dean and the exotic sexiness of Kanchi. Most interesting to watch is how the relationship between Clodagh and Dean develops, starting off as antagonistic in nature but eventually they come to respect one another.
Black Narcissus features some impressive camerawork by Powell and Pressburger regular Jack Cardiff, like the overhead shot of one of the nuns ringing the temple bell that shows just how high up they are. The palace is built into the side of the mountain. Cardiff does a fantastic job of showing off the intimidating yet majestic-looking environment that surrounds St. Faith. For the look of the film, he was inspired by painters Vermeer and Caravaggio. Cardiff ended up winning the Academy Award for cinematography. The power of cinema is the ability to transport us to exotic places we’ve never been to and Powell and Pressburger do this with Black Narcissus.
There is an introduction by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, a long-time fan of Powell and Pressburger’s films. He talks about the source material, Cardiff’s cinematography and the erotic nature of Black Narcissus. Tavernier also talks about key cast members.
Also included is an audio commentary by director Michael Powell and friend and fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He points out that the entire film was shot on a studio soundstage. He also talks about his first reaction to seeing it in colour and how the overt sexuality affected him. Scorsese touches upon the use of colour, describing the dense, lush images. Powell gives his initial impressions of the film. He points out what were models and what were matte paintings. Powell recounts personal anecdotes while Scorsese provides insightful analysis.
“The Audacious Adventurer” is a 2005 interview with Tavernier who talks about Powell and recounts some of his stories making Black Narcissus. This film was the first time Powell and Pressburger adapted a book into a film. He talks about the genesis of the project and covers the casting process, in particular Kerr, Byron and Simmons.
“Profile of Black Narcissus” is a 25-minute making of documentary that was produced 2000. It establishes Powell and Pressburger’s place in cinema when they made the film which was at the height of their popularity. The documentary goes through various aspects of the production with interviews with film historians and surviving cast and crew members.
“Painting with Light” is a 30-minute documentary on Jack Cardiff’s work on Black Narcissus. He initially thought they were going to shoot on location in India and was surprised when told they were going to shoot in England. Fellow filmmakers like Scorsese and film scholars sing his praises. Cardiff shows how a camera works and talks about the look of the film.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.