Monday, May 07, 2012
"Black Narcissus" (1947)
Sister Clodagh is an Anglican nun, charged with opening a convent in the high Himalayas, who must preserve her way of life in the face of complications in the form of Kanchi, a young mischievous girl, Mr. Dean, a rough and tumble British agent who tempts Clodagh away from her vows and Sister Ruth, a problem nun with dark intentions. While trying to transform an old seraglio (concubine living quarters) into a school and hospital for the local people, Sister Clodagh struggles to keep the nuns from straying; she alone must hold everyone together.
At its heart, this is a woman’s movie. There is first of all Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr who brings a gravitas and serenity to her role. Then there are the other nuns, including Sister Ruth, as well as Aiyah, the caretaker of the building who once looked after the place for the concubines of the Old General. There is also Kanchi, a young girl who sets her heart on a young prince who has come to be educated at the school and pulls out every stop to get him. Together they form a triumvirate of maiden, mother and crone. The nuns, who have forsaken children of their own, are a mothering influence to the children in the school not just as women but as a symbol of the British Empire mothering her colonies. Significantly, the film was released only months before India gained independence from Britain.
My only major gripe with the movie was with Kanchi. She was played by Jean Simmons, a white actor who painted her face to appear as a native of the country. This is along the same lines as Mickey Rooney’s offensive caricature of a Chinese man in ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. While I'm sure they thought they had good reason to do this, it just detracts from the film.
That being said, if you're a fan of classic movies I would highly recommend this movie. There's so much going on here and a great example of man vs nature with vivid imagery.