Filling the Gaps: Black Narcissus


I didn't set out to watch a "Black" film on Black Friday, (nor do I wish to pretend that "Black Friday" deserves codification as anything other than a commercial black hole). An interview with Martin Scorsese, who described a certain moment in the film as the one that forced him to become a filmmaker, led me to pluck Black Narcissus from the quicksand of my Netflix queue.

Like me, dear reader, you may have the wrong impression of the film (and the Netflix description certainly doesn't help, with its vague intimations of a crisis of faith in exotic lands, tagging the film in the "faith and spirituality" bucket).

Black Narcissus has elements of horror, romance, and the subtly erotic (the horror scenes are perhaps the most unexpected, and the most beautiful). It's more in the vein of In The Mood for Love than of the "stiff upper-lip" films that transfixed post-war Britain. Sex and desire are ever-present, even through our leads spend most of the film wearing nun habits.

Five nuns, led by Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh, move to a remote palace in the Himalayas, kindly lent by an Indian general in exchange for providing schools and medical services to the local children. The sisters are forced to rely on Major Dean, a Brit who know his way about the locals. Needless to say, sparks fly in many directions.


Clodagh's studied restraint sits against the animal attraction between the Indian prince and Kanchi, a lower-class girl rejected by her family for being too open in her many affections. Rather than suggesting that this is some native savagery, Sister Clodagh comes to envy their youthful impetuousness, troubled by regrets of her own.


Now, despite being set in the remote hills of the Himalayas, Black Narcissus was fully filmed in Britain, at the Pinewood Studios. Which perhaps accounts for the one jarring weakness in the film.

Despite carefully researching the architecture, the climate and the foliage of its remote setting, the powers-that-be still chose to brownface the female Indian lead, Kanchi.

Screen shot 2012 11 23 at 2 49 20 PM

In an incredible scene, we see Simmons do traditional Indian-style dancing, and to her credit, she's very good at it. But why not hire an Indian actress trained in classical dance? Which, as anyone who's seen even a single Indian movie knows, is literally every Indian actress (I could explain the reasons for intersection of dance and theatre in both classical and modern Indian culture, but I'll spare you).

It's even more jarring when you consider how carefully the film deals with "otherness". Certainly our good nuns believe they're bringing enlightenment to the savages, but Powell and Pressburger make no such judgment. In fact, with one line from our extremely handsome male lead (WWJD), the filmmakers reveal the inherent silliness of such beliefs, that if bringing the "light" means turning a man against his own family, it cannot possibly be more righteous.

(Clodagh and her sisters do come to recognize this, and certainly this contributes to their turmoil. If the motives of the Holy Order could be so wrong about one thing, why can't they be wrong about others, especially the right of a woman to be a woman?)

Basically, the filmmakers are saying that being one of the darkies is in fact a perfectly acceptable (even beautiful) human condition, unless of course you're in a mainstream movie. In which case, bust out the brown foundation and raven-colored hair dye.

Powell and Pressburger's film is well regarded as one of the first masterpieces of technicolor filmmaking, and I'd go so far to say that it's still one of the most beautiful films in existence.

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Despite its one great failing, Black Narcissus still stands up as a great study of what makes us human, even under the most stringent rules in the most trying of circumstances. Go watch it, then come back and play in the comments.

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One Response to “ Filling the Gaps: Black Narcissus ”

  1. I was surprised by the sensuality of the film. The portrayal of the 'exotic other' is always a thorny issue of this or any other era. I am always amazed about the incongruity when it comes to this casting – it seems to be a blend, relegating the minor (mainly non speaking roles) to folks who are markedly of ethnic origin.

    But I digress. This movie is absolutely gorgeous. After years of kicking the ball down the field I finally saw it a couple of years ago and now any time it is on I make sure to watch it.


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