A group of nuns are sent to the Himalayas where they are tasked with turning an old home for concubines into a functioning convent.
Wow. Just Wow.
Every once in a while, you happen upon a film that sweeps you up in its story, its flawless design, and the world that it’s created. For me, this was one of those movies. Black Narcissus comes from the golden age of Hollywood, when studios still believed in the grandiose visions of directors, when they built extravagant sets and painted beautiful landscape backgrounds. This is a film that is not only crafted brilliantly, but it’s also a moving story of inner conflict, culture clash, and not knowing one’s place in the world. This is a film that creates characters that feel like real, believable people, but it also creates a world that, even though it’s clearly on a set, it feels like a real world with real consequences for the choices characters make. Who would’ve guessed a story about nuns opening a convent could’ve captured my attention so completely?
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, “The King and I”) is assigned to a building in the Himalayas, where she is to open a new convent. The building used to belong to a General, where he would keep his concubines. Sister Clodagh takes with her four other nuns: Sister Briony (Judith Furse, “Carry On Spying”) because she is strong, Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson, “Wuthering Heights” (1939)) because she likes to garden, Sister Blanche (Jenny Laird, “Doctor Who”), also known as Sister Honey, because she’s very effervescent and brings good cheer, and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, "Saving Private Ryan”), who is troubled, but the Reverend Mother believes a change of scenery will help her. When the sisters arrive, an Englishman, Mr. Dean (David Farrar, “The 300 Spartans”), who knows the people and the culture better than they do, offers to help them acclimate. Also at the house is the general’s old and rather strange servant, Angu Ayah (May Hallatt, “Separate Tables”). As the Nuns go about their business, various troubles start to plague the convent, and Sister Clodagh wonders if opening the convent was such a good idea in the first place.
First and foremost, the sets for this movie are absolutely incredible. The convent set is built on a soundstage in lieu of actually filming in the mountains, but that doesn’t make the set any less impressive. The set looks absolutely massive, and it’s crafted with amazing attention to detail. More than that; throughout the entire movie, the nuns complain about the winds that constantly plague the mountain. Wind sweeps through this area constantly tugging at the nun’s habits or curtains hung on the windows. To imagine how much work must’ve went into making these sets look as brilliant as they do is mind-boggling. Not only are the sets incredibly impressive, but also all of the landscape paintings behind the sets are just as beautiful. There are scenes when the camera is poised off a cliff, looking straight down above a nun as she rings a bell, and its dizzyingly incredible. I love old Hollywood for their lavish sets and extravagant costumes, and this movie is a perfect example of that extravagance. Even though I enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War, and sung praises for it’s digital landscapes, I’d much, much rather watch a movie like this; a quiet drama where it's still obvious how much work went into the film. This movie is a labor of love, and you can see the blood, sweat, and tears that went into the sets to make them as great as they are. This film won the Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction for a color production, and with Criterion's latest transfer, the film is flawless (can you tell I like Criterion movies?).
Another thing I loved about this movie was the script. Each of the characters have their own personal struggles that they are wrestling with. Clodagh continuously thinks back to her love before she joined the convent; she has fears of a culture clash between the nuns and locals; she feels isolated and confused, with no one to talk to about her worries. Another sister is considering giving up her vows at the end of the year. Sister Ruth seems to be worse off than ever; the climate does not help her mood, instead it makes her more erratic and depressed. All of the sisters seem to suffer a kind of mild disease from the mountainous climate. This film takes an amazing look at all of the problems that would probably truly arise from putting a convent in such extreme conditions. Even though the story is about nuns wrestling with their reason for being in a foreign land, the movie itself is wrought with tension, and it pulls you right through the story. Some old films, particularly from the Hollywood golden age, have a tendency to overdramatize things until they become melodramatic, but for the most part, this film was pretty grounded… for the most part.
There were a few extremely melodramatic moments in the movie, but, this being old Hollywood, I sort of expected that. Most of the time, I can ignore the melodrama because it fills me with nostalgia for a time I was never able to experience. This film features some rather theatrical scenes of 1940’s style sexual tension; some of which are a little bit much. For the most part though, the scenes really work in this film. The only character I really had issues with throughout pretty much the whole film was Angu Ayah. Her character was supposed to be a servant leftover from the time that the house was a concubine home, and she was supposed to be rather quirky. Her character was so over the top that it took me out of the movie sometimes. There was also a rather tense scene when a nun had gone missing, and Angu literally just stops the scene to make fun of the nuns. I’m not sure if that was a try at comic relief or not, but it didn’t work.
Aside from one annoying character and a few overdramatic moments of melodrama, this movie is perfect. Not just good; darn near perfect. It’s a film I’m sure I’ll have a hard time convincing many people to watch, because who gets excited to watch a 1940’s film about nuns? But if you’re like me, a cinephile on a journey to find cinema’s best, then this film is not to be missed. It’s a treat that will dazzle and amaze you, and in the end leave you wanting to return to the mountains.
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