93 Black Narcissus

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released by Criterion and the films on them. If it's got a spine number, it's in here. Threads may contain spoilers.
Post Reply
Message
Author
User avatar
zedz
Joined: Sun Nov 07, 2004 7:24 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#101 Post by zedz » Mon Aug 02, 2010 4:41 pm

What you're noticing is probably the 'breathing' of Technicolor (I think that's what it's called), a slight instability of the colour which I think is part and parcel of the three-strip process. David Hare is the local expert on this, so I'm sure he can provide more technical information.

Haven't got by Black Blu yet, so apologies if it's nothing of the sort!

User avatar
Finch
Joined: Mon Jul 07, 2008 5:09 pm
Location: Edinburgh, UK

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#102 Post by Finch » Mon Aug 02, 2010 4:47 pm

HP, I noticed the colour instability (mentioned in my previous post) as well, especially in the shots you mentioned. It didn't distract me as it seemed to with you but it is noticeable and it's why the Red Shoes restauration is superior if not significantly so. And yes, I'd love to hear David chime in as well when he gets to see both P&Ps eventually.

User avatar
mfunk9786
Under Chris' Protection
Joined: Fri May 16, 2008 4:43 pm
Location: Philadelphia, PA

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#103 Post by mfunk9786 » Mon Aug 02, 2010 4:53 pm

There's something rather endearing about it in such a colorful film: like the color can't contain itself at times and starts to burst outside the lines.

User avatar
tajmahal
Joined: Mon May 11, 2009 11:10 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#104 Post by tajmahal » Mon Aug 02, 2010 5:08 pm

One question on the image itself: anyone else notice a persistent kind of flicker or strobe effect on the blu ray? I suspect it's a simple side effect of the three strip process and the difficulty in having every frame match perfectly, and it seemed more noticeable in the very gray shots of Kerr et al in the convent or classroom. But it was distracting at times...mostly to the extent that I was simply trying to understand why it was there.
I had the same problem with the Australian port of the ITV disc. Very distracting at times. interesting that this hasn't been mentioned in the reviews I've read. I have the Criterion on order, having sold the ITV edition. Sounds like the same image, with a few more tasty extras.

User avatar
Matt
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 12:58 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#105 Post by Matt » Mon Aug 02, 2010 5:24 pm

I've only just sampled the Criterion BD, but it looked much better in this concern than did the original Criterion DVD which, for me, was unwatchable due to the extreme color strobing.

User avatar
Murdoch
Joined: Sun Apr 20, 2008 11:59 pm
Location: Upstate NY

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#106 Post by Murdoch » Mon Aug 02, 2010 5:30 pm

The strobing is much more marginal than the previous release, and I have gotten used to it but every so often in the new release it will stick out like a sore thumb. I don't mind it much, sort of because I agree with what mfunk says, even if it isn't intentional.

User avatar
david hare
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 8:01 pm
Location: WellyYeller

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#107 Post by david hare » Mon Aug 02, 2010 8:05 pm

Finch I dont have nor intend to get the Crit of BN (unless someone persuades me I must.) As for the ITV no issues re color strobing or pulsing although I still have a very soft spot for the depth of saturation on the old Crit SD, all other problems aside. I think it's already been canvassed here but what some people thought was EE in a couple of shots is bleeding as a result of the three strip photochemical process and the condition of elements. I still think this is something that could have handled greater vibrancy in the red end of the spectrum. But that's just IMO.

Look, the Red Shoes is sorely tempting me for Blu double dip, but frankly money is an issue this year. I would only buy the Crit if someone can promise me on a stack of bibles the wide shots are all sharper than the ITV.

User avatar
HistoryProf
Joined: Mon Mar 13, 2006 3:48 am
Location: KCK

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#108 Post by HistoryProf » Tue Aug 03, 2010 12:15 am

well I'm glad to hear others noticed it...I thought it odd that it hadn't been mentioned here - or that the reviews all gushed over the image quality and called it a revelation etc etc. And it certainly is a wondrous site in many spots, but oddly it's the drabber scenes where the strobing is most noticeable...the more color there is the less it is a factor. Not sure why that is, but I only really noticed it when the palette was predominantly grays, indoor scenes, etc. Once they go outside and the beautiful Indian attire is present, everything calms down and turns amazingly vibrant. I almost began to take it as the parts of the movie that were simply pulsing w/ desire for more color!

And I don't want to overstate it's distracting factor - It bugged me when I first noticed it, and I continued to notice it as the film went on, but less and less until I really didn't care because the image is otherwise phenomenal and the film itself is pure P&P magic. I guess it caught me off guard early on because I was expecting something close to flawless. I'm not remotely unhappy with it, and don't want to discourage anyone for picking it up...it's marvelous.

User avatar
Matt
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 12:58 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#109 Post by Matt » Tue Aug 10, 2010 12:42 am

CAUTION: This post contains spoilers that I'm not going to block off.

I just finished the novel and I think my theory about the title still holds. I had forgotten, however, that Sister Ruth starts calling the young general "Black Narcissus, and there are a couple of paragraphs in the book, written about Sister Clodagh (who is unaware that the scent the young general wears is actually called "Black Narcissus"), that might explain the title a little further:

[p. 164] Sister Clodagh was very angry when she heard that Sister Ruth had nick-named the young General "Black Narcissus." She was angry and astonished at its neatness; what had made Sister Ruth echo her own dream with a name? In her dream, Dilip [the young general] and Con [Clodagh's former boyfriend] had held mirrors in the palms of their hands, and she had tried to attract them but could only echo what they had said. And now Sister Ruth had put her dream into words.

[p. 263] She thought then that he [the young general] was to blame for it all; that is she had never seen him or let him in, this would not have happened. He was the beginning of it all, he had put these fantastic ideas into the Sisters' heads and had made them think that anything could happen. "Look what you did to me," she thought. "If it hadn't been for you and your people I should never have thought of Con. You bewitched us all and I wish I had never set eyes on you."

So, the idea that the exoticism and eroticism that the young general stirs up in the convent (which used to be a harem for his ancestor) corrupts the nuns is right there in the book.

More about the book: Having read it and found it to be a good, if overlong book (it just keeps hammering away at the same events and themes), I have even more respect for Pressburger's powers of adaptation. He is faithful to the plot and spirit of the book (much of the dialogue is verbatim), yet cuts away any fat and adds little inventions that make the story more cinematic. For example, Sister Ruth's red dress and lipstick are his inventions and I cannot imagine the movie without them.

One interesting thing to note is that Sister Ruth's death in the book is a little more gruesome than in the movie. In the book she falls and is impaled on a cut bamboo spike that goes through her heart. Because of this, the indigenous people become afraid of the area where she fell and consider her a bhût, or malevolent spirit. Also, the book makes quite clear that the young general defiles Kanchi, very much at her bidding. And there is a pervasive, but vague theme of India (or at least this part of it) being a kind of unconquerable frontier, and the book could be read as an indictment of colonialism and religious evangelism.

I'm glad I read it as I appreciate the film even more, but I think the film is the better work.

User avatar
Michael
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 12:09 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#110 Post by Michael » Thu Aug 12, 2010 8:23 pm


SPOILERS



I have watched Black Narcissus five times since receiving the Blu-ray disc. I LOOOOVE this film - my #1 Criterion fave of the year, possibly ever. Something about this film subconsciously led me to revisit Vertigo for the first time in many years. I was struck by how similar both films are, they could be sisters. Not only the dense, hallucinatory design of Technicolor but also the ghostly mood soaking every shot and people being driven to insanity and death by obsessions. Both films do not clutch on the story instead they wrap you around in their wooly coccoon of mystery, fog, memories and dream - the haunted and haunting atmosphere. Both have bell towers and women falling to death.

User avatar
mfunk9786
Under Chris' Protection
Joined: Fri May 16, 2008 4:43 pm
Location: Philadelphia, PA

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#111 Post by mfunk9786 » Thu Aug 12, 2010 10:18 pm

I have never felt that way about Vertigo (frankly, I am stunned and amazed by its explosion of critical love that seems to be growing exponentially even now), and I may never feel that way - but I totally agree with you re: Black Narcissus. It is both stunning location porn (how this is pulled off on nothing but sets is still beyond me but it's nothing short of magic) and a fascinating dramedy of densely scripted character interaction for the first two acts, and then turns into terrifying, blacker than black horror on a dime, making you wonder why you didn't have to pay two admissions for a film with so much to offer. The Blu-ray is definitely the Criterion release of the year so far, and I can't see anything beating it out.

Jonathan S
Joined: Sat Jun 07, 2008 3:31 am
Location: Somerset, England

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#112 Post by Jonathan S » Fri Aug 13, 2010 4:44 am

Michael wrote: Something about this film subconsciously led me to revisit Vertigo for the first time in many years.
Maybe it was partly my recent post on this page. :) (Six down - sorry I can't work out how to link to the exact post.)
Your extension of the comparison is interesting. The concept of "sister" films with dissimilar plots, different directors, etc. has often fascinated me and I once built up a case for Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and Ray's Bigger than Life.

User avatar
Michael
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 12:09 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#113 Post by Michael » Fri Aug 13, 2010 8:35 am

mfunk - Vertigo can be described as "location porn" as it works as a surreal, ghostly traveloque of San Francisco and its surroundings. I have such a weird relationship with Vertigo throughout my life - from the glimpse of Novak in green fog on a small TV screen when I was 8 to today. There was a time in my life when the film shook every vein and bone in me and possessed me more than anything else. I even traveled 3000 miles just to savor a big-screen screening of Vertigo. Then since then I drifted away from Vertigo but it took Black Narcissus to send me some subliminal message to revisit an old lover. There I am today - possessed by two films! :)
You may want to give it another chance. I have heard many times that Vertigo can leave people cold and that it takes a few viewings to really tap on the deep emotions.
We can't deny the beautiful, strange gothicism in its full Technicolor glory both films share.

Napoleon
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 6:55 am

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#114 Post by Napoleon » Fri Aug 13, 2010 10:25 am

SpoilerShow
Matt wrote:Also, the book makes quite clear that the young general defiles Kanchi, very much at her bidding.
Maybe I've got a filthy mind(!) but that was always clear in the film. It's more or less the final straw that breaks Clodaghs resolve that they can impress/force their values on the local people.

But then I've also always thought that
SpoilerShow
Dean has an intimate knowledge of Kanchi as well? No?

User avatar
Matt
Joined: Tue Nov 02, 2004 12:58 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#115 Post by Matt » Fri Aug 13, 2010 11:53 am

Napoleon wrote:But then I've also always thought that
SpoilerShow
Dean has an intimate knowledge of Kanchi as well? No?
It's left pretty ambiguous in the book, but my interpretation is that
SpoilerShow
Dean brings her to the convent because she is very insistent and he is at the very brink of giving in to her temptations.

User avatar
puxzkkx
Joined: Fri Jul 17, 2009 12:33 am

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#116 Post by puxzkkx » Mon May 14, 2012 3:42 am

I found a copy of this from ITV's Masterpiece Collection in the bargain bin at NZ's Walmart equivalent. Bought it as it was only $7 and I had never seen it before. However IMDb and pretty much every other source gives 1 hour 42 minutes minutes as the runtime and this copy only runs for 1 hour and 29 minutes. Would this be a case of end credits being cut out or is there worse butchering at hand? If it is the latter I'd rather find and watch a full version.

User avatar
John Edmond
Joined: Mon Jan 18, 2010 8:35 pm

Re: 93 Black Narcissus

#117 Post by John Edmond » Mon May 14, 2012 4:03 am

I can't think of reason why it would have been butchered. I presume you haven't watched and are going off the back cover? In which case it's probably just a labelling error - hell I don't know one Madman DVD that gets the film running time right.

User avatar
Mr Sausage
Not PETA approved
Joined: Wed Nov 03, 2004 9:02 pm
Location: Canada

Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)

#118 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon Jul 06, 2015 6:30 am

DISCUSSION ENDS MONDAY, JULY 20th AT 6:30 AM.

Members have a two week period in which to discuss the film before it's moved to its dedicated thread in The Criterion Collection subforum. Please read the Rules and Procedures.

This thread is not spoiler free. This is a discussion thread; you should expect plot points of the individual films under discussion to be discussed openly. See: spoiler rules.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

I encourage members to submit questions, either those designed to elicit discussion and point out interesting things to keep an eye on, or just something you want answered. This will be extremely helpful in getting discussion started. Starting is always the hardest part, all the more so if it's unguided. Questions can be submitted to me via PM.




***PM me if you have any suggestions for additions or just general concerns and questions.***

User avatar
djproject
Joined: Sat Oct 09, 2010 3:41 pm
Location: Framingham, MA
Contact:

Re: Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)

#119 Post by djproject » Mon Jul 06, 2015 5:04 pm

In a nutshell, I've seen this film as an object lesson on *bad* reasons to join a monastic order. The most bad reason is "running away from one's problems". The problems never go away - and are certainly not merely "left at the door" - when one takes up a monastic calling. On the contrary, it can come back full force and sometimes with a strong vengeance (Sister Ruth anyone?). This is not to say one should be "purged" of such difficulties but just know that it's not taking monastic vows that will do it. The purging comes from a dedicated, persistent, and, most importantly, a concentrated effort to make internal reconciliation. After all, you don't put newspapers on top of the crap-pile (or to use another completely different film, a paper that says "BROKEN GLASS" over, well, broken glass =] ).

The other takeaway is that the line between the sacred and the profane is sometime a fine one. This does not mean all things are good or I am advocating for a pantheistic view of the world. But sometimes what we think is holy is perhaps not holy and what is not holy ends up being the best thing for us. I'm not saying one who should show up inebriated during Christmas services, but I would take a sincere song over a hypocritical one.

That's enough for now. Now to learn physics from a physical teacher =D

User avatar
domino harvey
Dot Com Dom
Joined: Wed Jan 11, 2006 2:42 pm

Re: Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)

#120 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jul 07, 2015 10:48 am

I thought the takeaway was don't wear shorts if you don't want nuns thinking you're hunky

User avatar
Drucker
Your Future our Drucker
Joined: Wed May 18, 2011 9:37 am

Re: Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)

#121 Post by Drucker » Tue Jul 07, 2015 11:01 pm

From the outset of the film, it is clear that the nuns and the attempted order of Black Narcissus is doomed. Both Sister Clodagh and the order itself are destined to be in over their heads and out of their element. The order's goal of imposing its values on a society that does not want it is just as doomed as Sister Clodagh, told by her Mother Superior that she is not ready for this task. Surely, the film has undertones of the immorality of colonization, with white nuns imposing Western, Christian values on a society that wants no part of it. However, the movie does a fantastic job of going deeper than simply illustrating that outsiders cannot (and should not) impose their will on another people. Instead, I think the film is about order, and more specifically, natural vs. unnatural order.

For the purposes of this post, let's say that unnatural order is imposed from a position of authority. Indeed, that's exactly what The Old General does. Though the people do not want it, and left another religious order disappointed five months earlier, the old general believes this group of nuns can help his subjects. Everyone who seeks to impose will in this movie must have the benefit of force at their disposal. Indeed, before the shot of the general explaining his motivations and plans, we see that he has brought guards/police with him. Similarly but unrelatedly, what is the first lesson taught to the students in school? How to say "gun" "tank" and "armor". These are symbols of authority that can be installed, but not naturally earned.

None of this is a problem to the Sisters. Indeed, in one interaction, Sister Clodagh says that someone should be "ordered to come". When the other party replies that the people do not like to be ordered, she replies that "they should learn discipline." And of course, their entire existence revolves around order and hierarchy. As Mr. Dean jokes at one point to Sister Clodagh, "You'd like the general, he's also a superior being." And of course, what is a group of nuns living together called? An order.

But again, there is natural and unnatural order, and the nuns and their plans fall squarely in the latter. Nothing that they try to bring to the village squares with Mr. Dean's early assessment of it in the letter. While the nuns believe people should enjoy work, the people are only working as much as they need to, in order to eat and survive. Further, things that are natural to the people of the village are verboten from the nuns. This manifests in little things (calling the nuns by their proper title, knocking on their doors before entering), and big things (the romantic stories that evolve in the film). And of course, every little thing Mr. Dean does, from working on plumbing, to knocking over a table during Christmas mass, to blasphemy, disrupts order.

Things that disrupt the nun's order get in the way of their plans, and in the end, this is their undoing. Unable to impose order on the outsiders, the internal "order" that is a part of every individual nun falls apart. They start fantasizing about past lives and home. Instead of a vegetable garden, one plants flowers. The one who plants the flowers then insists she needs external discipline in order to recover. But why did Sister Clodagh not notice until a garden had already blossomed that the "wrong" things had been planted there? She too, is distracted, and has lost order. What has won out? The natural order of the village.

The natural order of the village allows for men and women who are attracted to each other to be together, not separated. The natural order of the village recognizes the building the nuns lived in as a former shelter for the general's mistresses. The natural order lets the 17-year old girl dance for fun in the building. By seeking to impose order on the village, the nuns are actually upending the order that naturally arises from the citizens.

The film's final 15 minutes are haunting and spellbinding, leaving an appropriately spiritual explanation on why their plans would never work in this particular village.

User avatar
Sloper
Joined: Tue May 29, 2007 10:06 pm

Re: Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger, 1947)

#122 Post by Sloper » Mon Jul 13, 2015 11:18 am

Great post, Drucker. I agree with a lot of what you say about this film’s engagement with those big themes, order and nature. There’s something a bit Wuthering-Heights-ish about the main setting: it’s so elevated, so exposed to the elements (the wind, the crystal-clear air, the views of the god-like mountains, the vertiginous abyss), that it serves as a sort of crucible in which all the trappings and artifices of culture are stripped away, and what you’re left with is a lot of uncomfortable truths about nature (human and otherwise).

Mr Dean says, towards the end of the film, that there’s something about the air in this place that makes everything seem ‘exaggerated’. But I’m not sure that’s quite right: this mountain-top palace isn’t ‘over-the-top’, it’s just ‘the top’, a place whose extreme conditions bring out the bare, un-exaggerated truth about things. At one point, Sister Philippa argues that to survive in this place, ‘you either have to be like Mr Dean or the Holy Man: either ignore it or give yourself up to it’. I think Dean is the one who effectively ignores where he is. It seems as though he has made a clear-eyed assessment of this place and decided that his best option is not to engage with it more than he has to. He’s impeccably nonchalant at (almost) all times because he doesn’t really care about anything: as he says to Sister Ruth at the one moment when he loses his cool, ‘I don’t love anyone’. I don’t think he’s lying to cover his attraction to Sister Clodagh, I think this is an honest statement about the defensive stance he’s adopted in order to survive. And of course, it probably hints in a vague way at his own reasons for living out here.

The Holy Man, on the other hand, is the one who has ‘given himself up’ to his surroundings. He is as exposed and as immovable as the mountains he stares at day in, day out. One of the things I love about this film is the constant – and very authentic – use of wind machines to create the sense that everything and everyone in this setting is under continual assault by the elements. When we see the Holy Man, he isn’t simply a picture of static serenity: like everyone in the film, he is constantly ‘moved’, changed and weathered by the wind. We see his chilling impassivity when the drums stop beating to signal the death of his great-nephew (I think I have that right...), and this is reinforced later on when the boy says that the death of Sister Ruth ‘would be a very little thing to him’. The Holy Man’s meditations don’t seem to be aimed at attaining any sort of ‘transcendence’ in the usual sense of the word. What he gives himself up to is his own materiality and mortality, aligning his being with that of the mountains and trees, and allowing himself to decay at the same rate as the other natural phenomena on this high, exposed spot. We can assume that his own death will also be ‘a very little thing to him’. The phrase emphasises the idea that he is like these mountains, a monument oblivious to the ‘little things’ living and dying around (and inside) him.

Clodagh points out that neither approach ‘would do’ for the nuns. Their mission is not to ignore things or accept them, but to try and improve them, but the examples of Dean and the Holy Man indicate that this is impossible. As Drucker says, the nuns’ mission is clearly doomed from the beginning, and while I do think this makes the film a bit limited as drama, it also gives it an insistence and an intensity that are part of its greatness.

Throughout the film, there is a palpable sense of seen and unseen forces working against Saint Faith’s. The wind effects I mentioned earlier contribute to this, making everything seem more animated than it would otherwise be, so that the otherwise still, sober habits of the nuns billow passionately around their bodies, not unlike Kanchi’s virtually transparent dress when she does her dance.

The colour and lighting effects are also part of this. When we go back to Ireland in the flashbacks, the imagery is beautiful but reassuringly familiar. The summer sun glimmering in the lake is juxtaposed with the verdant, rocky cliff-face, the hounds run across rolling green fields, Clodagh is given beautiful emeralds in a tasteful drawing room – I love the way she then runs out into the pitch darkness, as though this were a kind of dream sequence where she leaves the stable comforts of her memories of home for the dark, unknown world she finds herself in now in Mopu.

For most of the film, we’re constantly made aware of the strange and threatening character of the mountain-top setting, most strikingly through the weird, indefinable light and colour that suffuse this place in the evening and at dawn. This is the sort of imagery that frames the climactic confrontation between Clodagh and Ruth. In the film’s existing thread, Matt suggested that there’s a kind of ‘haunted house’ feel to Black Narcissus, and that’s exactly right. There’s an unstoppable presence here that menaces and gradually destroys the nuns, and a lot of the effects this film is celebrated for work to create this impression.

On the subject of colour, I also love how Sister Ruth is the one who brings the colour red bursting into Saint Faith’s: first, when she runs into the room covered in blood (perhaps significantly, the biggest stains are smeared over her breasts, exacerbating the other nuns’ embarrassment), and of course at the end with her red hair, dress and lipstick. What a wonderful moment when she accuses Clodagh of being jealous of her, and then looks down suggestively – Clodagh lowers her eyes, perhaps to look away from Ruth, perhaps to survey her beauty more fully. Either way, she’s visibly disturbed by what she sees or refuses to see. It’s one of those great moments you sometimes get in old films where a pause and an exchange of looks seem to convey something that can’t be spoken out loud. By the same token, it would be reductive to try and sum up the effect of this moment in words, but it’s fair to say that it reinforces the overall sense that this is a place with supernatural (or just terrifyingly natural) powers, and that Sister Ruth becomes a conduit for those powers, forcing to the surface everything that has been repressed and controlled. At the end, she tries to hurl Sister Clodagh off the cliff, but ends up plunging into the abyss herself. In a symbolic sense, Ruth also ‘gives herself up’ to Mopu with that last, primal scream, and Clodagh’s survival signals her inability to do so: she can only look on in horror, and then run away.

Perhaps Ruth is even more in tune with her surroundings than the young general or Kanchi. The former enchants the latter with his ‘Black Narcissus’ perfume, saying that it is ‘rather common to smell of ourselves’; Ruth says she hates all scents. She later calls the general ‘Black Narcissus’, and when one of the nuns protests that ‘He’s not black’, she claims that ‘They all look alike to me’. This is overtly racist, of course, but it also suggests a perverse alignment between Sister Ruth, the Holy Man, the mountains and the wind, with Ruth coming to represent an almost indiscriminate destructive force, incapable of being controlled or repressed, and as morally blank as the elements themselves in the face of the things and people she’s destroying. She rushes through the convent like a malevolent, wind-borne spirit, and ends up looking as though she is literally possessed and animated by some elemental (not Christian) demon.

According to the trivia page on IMDB, it was Kathleen Byron who insisted on playing Sister Ruth’s scene in Dean’s house as though she was happy and relieved to be there: Michael Powell wanted her to dart around crazily, and almost fell out with Byron because of her resistance to this idea. I like the humanity Byron brings to her part, and in some ways wish the film contained more of this, but perhaps Powell’s version would have got the point across better, showing how this attempted seduction was not the last gasp of Ruth’s civilised, human self, but instead the penultimate stage of her metaphorical ‘possession’.

Another powerful image that suggests the hopelessness of the nuns’ enterprise is the one that shows Sister Philippa trying to plant potatoes in the foreground of the shot, while the vast Himalayas stretch out behind her. A shot like that might, in a different context, have suggested a kind of heroic dignity to her struggle to cultivate the land, but here the mountains towering over Philippa make her vegetable patch seem like a comically misguided attempt to master and cultivate something infinite and mysterious – she might as well be planting vegetables in space. It comes as no surprise later on when we see Sister Philippa so transfixed by the mountains that she doesn’t notice the bell ringing, or when we find out that she’s been planting flowers (unashamedly transient, fragile and useless) instead of vegetables.
Drucker wrote:The one who plants the flowers then insists she needs external discipline in order to recover. But why did Sister Clodagh not notice until a garden had already blossomed that the "wrong" things had been planted there? She too, is distracted, and has lost order. What has won out? The natural order of the village.
Yes, it’s telling that Sister Clodagh interrupts her own prayer to ask Sister Philippa why she isn’t praying. I love the moment that follows, when Clodagh says they must work to drive away all distracting thoughts, and Philippa responds by simply turning up her horribly blistered palms. The more she works, the more she realises the futility of her work, and the closer she comes to being like the Holy Man, staring helplessly out at the mountains, squinting into the elements that are wearing her down.
djproject wrote:In a nutshell, I've seen this film as an object lesson on *bad* reasons to join a monastic order. The most bad reason is "running away from one's problems". The problems never go away - and are certainly not merely "left at the door" - when one takes up a monastic calling. On the contrary, it can come back full force and sometimes with a strong vengeance (Sister Ruth anyone?). This is not to say one should be "purged" of such difficulties but just know that it's not taking monastic vows that will do it. The purging comes from a dedicated, persistent, and, most importantly, a concentrated effort to make internal reconciliation. After all, you don't put newspapers on top of the crap-pile (or to use another completely different film, a paper that says "BROKEN GLASS" over, well, broken glass =] ).

The other takeaway is that the line between the sacred and the profane is sometime a fine one. This does not mean all things are good or I am advocating for a pantheistic view of the world. But sometimes what we think is holy is perhaps not holy and what is not holy ends up being the best thing for us. I'm not saying one who should show up inebriated during Christmas services, but I would take a sincere song over a hypocritical one.
This raises an interesting and complex issue about the role of religion in this film. In some ways, the film suggests that these nuns are not really the good Christians they claim to be. Mr Dean has a point when he attacks Sister Clodagh’s supercilious, elitist way of talking about Christ, and it’s disturbingly clear that one of the main reasons for Sister Ruth’s breakdown is the uncharitable treatment she’s received from Sister Clodagh, who for all her apparent concern (and for all of Ruth’s obvious problems) is evidently projecting her own issues onto Ruth, and punishing her for them. So to some extent, it feels like the nuns fail because they’re not fully invested in what they’re doing, are too wrapped up in their own personal problems, and are following the letter rather than the spirit of their order.

But more than this, and perhaps in tension with this, the film also seems to be saying that Christianity itself is out of place in this context, and perhaps that the limitations of the belief system – rather than just those of a few of its followers – are exposed here. When Sister Clodagh looks despairingly at the Holy Man and says that she ‘really doesn’t know what to do’ about him, Mr Dean says in a withering tone, ‘What would Christ have done?’ At first glance, you might think that he’s challenging her to be a better Christian, but the way the moment is played suggests that he is actually making an ironic comment about the irrelevance of Christian ideals in the face of this Holy Man and what he represents.

There’s an equally complex moment at the end – one of my favourites in the film – when Sister Philippa places some flowers (presumably the ones she grew instead of vegetables) in front of the crucifix, and looks sadly up at the figure of Christ. We see the crucifix from behind, towering over her, an impassive block of wood that seems to offer nothing in the way of mercy or redemption to this poor woman – played so beautifully by Flora Robson – as she tries to placate it. What is she saying with these flowers? That this was the best she could do, and that she hopes it’s enough for God? Or that the task God set her in this place was impossible, and she shouldn’t be blamed for failing to complete it? Do the flowers now signify something that distances her from God, rather than bringing her closer to him? She’s apologising to God, rebuking him for his cruelty, and coming to terms with her own (perhaps partial) loss of faith, all at the same moment.

This can be a rather cold, witheringly ironic film at times, but the scenes focusing on Sister Philippa are genuinely poignant, and they foreground questions about whether the God these nuns serve really exists at this altitude, or at least whether he is of any use to them there. Everything is left ambiguous, of course. From what I know of Rumer Godden, it sounds like she was a fairly devout Christian, and a Catholic convert in later life, so I don’t know how far the film diverges from the novel in this respect. But unlike Ordet, the film we almost discussed for this round (and the one I voted for), Black Narcissus doesn’t seem to have much faith in God: he seems to be eclipsed by other, less explicable and less benign forces, and the film even seems to be quite happy about that.

Post Reply