Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus

For many, the Himalayas are a region of fundamental spiritual significance.  In contrast, an order of Anglican nuns will find their faith deeply shaken by their ill-fated assignment to a remote Indian mountain.  Altitude, isolation, and angst wreck havoc on the sisters’ esprit de corps in Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s newly restored Black Narcissus (trailer here), which opens this Friday at Film Forum, inaugurating the New Year with a classic worthy of the big screen.

High atop a forbidding peak, a prince once built a palace for his harem.  Standing like a monument to the kingdom’s faded glory, only an eccentric old caretaker lives there, with her birds and the ghosts of bygone days.  Periodically, the local general entices westerners up to the palace.  An order of monks tried to make a go of it there, but soon slinked off in humiliated defeat.  The nuns are determined to do better.

St. Faith will be a convent, school, and medical clinic serving the needs of the local villagers.  Sister Clodagh will be the mother superior, the youngest in the history of her order—a fact she is well aware of.  She will be taking a handful of sisters with her, including the matronly Sister Briony and the troubled Sister.  It is Mother Dorothea’s hope Ruth better thrives in a smaller group.  Right, that sounds plausible.  Either way, she is Sister Clodagh’s problem now—she will indeed be a burden. 

As soon as she lays eyes on the General’s western business agent, Mr. Dean, she displays an inclination to act out.  The confines of the wind-buffeted palace 9,000 above sea-level only exacerbate her erratic behavior. However, the strange environment affects all the sisters, bringing back all the old memories they thought they had successfully buried.

Based on Rumer Godden’s novel, Narcissus in many ways operates as cautionary corrective to the colonialist impulse.  Though never overtly supernatural, there seems be ancient energies surrounding the convent-palace that are stronger than the sisters’ faith.  Filmed old school style entirely on specially built studio sets, Narcissus has an eerie, almost fantastical vibe.  Academy Award winning set designer Alfred Junge’s Himalayan backdrops might just be the most effective matte paintings used in cinema until Ralph McQuarrie’s classic work graced the original Star Wars.  Still arguably the greatest Technicolor cinematographer, Jack Cardiff was probably the only DP working at the time capable of rendering Narcissus’s lush colors and evocative lighting.

The cast is pretty great too, starting with Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh.  The way her relationship with David Farrar’s Mr. Dean evolves from mutual contempt into a painful regret and yearning is quietly compelling.  However, his 1970’s NBA short shorts are just all kinds of disturbing—and inappropriate given the Himalayan climate.  The unforgettable Kathleen Byron is a proverbial hot mess as Sister Ruth, while Dame Flora Robson adds a genuine note of pathos as the gentle Sister Philippa.

Far deeper than the Lost Horizon-ish exoticism some might expect, Black Narcissus really is a great film.  It is also a masterful example of how mood can be controlled through visual artistry.  Highly recommended, the 4K restoration runs for a week (1/4-1/10) at Film Forum in New York.  Happy New Year.