Sometimes you end up watching a movie simply because its title and description sound way too arresting to ignore. “Anglican nuns in the Himalayas” was outlandish enough to draw me into watching this unusual and darkly sensuous 1947 British drama with Deborah Kerr.
The film tells the story of a small group of nuns, who are sent to establish a convent in a former palace near the Himalayas, where they’re to create a hospital and school for the local children. They’re headed by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), the youngest Sister Superior in the order and new to the top nun job. Their main local contact is a British agent named Dean (David Farrar), a handsome and rather world-weary man who knows the local Indians well and is sceptical about the whole civilising enterprise. He gives them a few months at most.
The nuns find themselves in a disorienting and dreamlike world, where isolation, extreme weather, eternally howling wind, sensual frescoes of the palace interiors and strange culture all conspire to rattle their hearts and minds. Sister Clodagh becomes haunted by the memories of her old life and ill-fated love for her childhood friend, and she’s not entirely immune to Dean’s charms either, behind her icy Sister Superior exterior. But this conflict between the spirit and the flesh proves to be truly explosive for another nun, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron in the film’s most memorable performance). Already emotionally disturbed before arriving at the convent, she becomes increasingly unstable and unhinged with lust for Dean and jealousy for her superior.
For a 1940s film, Black Narcissus is surprisingly erotic, simmering with repressed passions that erupt in the movie’s fabulously gothic finale, with the imagery that would make any horror film proud. For a while though, the story seems to meander around in an episodic manner, including a subplot about a vain young Indian general, bejewelled from head to toe like a living Fabergé egg, who is eager to learn the Christian ways and gets seduced by a beautiful lower-caste girl living at the convent. It ties in neatly with the greater theme of forbidden passion, but it’s pretty jarring to watch an Indian girl played by an obviously Western actress (I guess that’s 1940s cinema for you).
The matte paintings of the Himalayan landscapes are likewise quite dated by today’s standards, but no matter, Black Narcissus is still a dizzyingly beautiful film, with the exceptional use of colour and dramatic lighting that, according to wikipedia, had a profound impact on the later filmmakers including Martin Scorsese. There’s something otherworldly about the nuns, in their austere ghostly clothing, moving among their exotic surroundings and eye-popping colours. I’m glad I’ve watched this strange, atmospheric, beautifully directed movie.