Monday, June 4, 2012

Black Narcissus (Powell. Pressburger. 1947)

"Remember, the superior of all is the servant of all."

 If you read my blog on a regular basis then you already know that I am a huge nerd when it comes to professional wrestling. One of my favorite promotions in wrestling history is the now defunct original ECW; not that WWE rehash garbage. Though he was never really one of my absolute favorites, a wrestler named Sabu was one of the most successful entertainers in that promotion. He was bold, death-defying and pretty much willing to do anything to entertain the crowd. Sabu was an interesting character.

I, believe it or not, have a reason for that little story. Sabu's actual name is Terry Brunk and his uncle/trainer is the original Sheik in wrestling. He was a huge fan of an Indian actor who was named Sabu. This is where the name of the famous wrestler originates. The actor Sabu is featured in a supporting role in the Powell/Pressburger film Black Narcissus. Six degrees of ECW.

Honestly, none of that has anything to do with the movie. But I thought it was an interesting little bit of trivia. In Black Narcissus the actor Sabu plays a relatively unimportant role as the Young General. He comes to a newly opened convent nestled up in a Himalayan mountain village in order to get an education. The nuns running the convent are the real stars of the movie. In particular, Black Narcissus tells the story of the nun put in charge of the convent's development, Sister Clodagh. She is played by the stunningly beautiful Deborah Kerr in a performance that is such a polar opposite to my previous experience with her in An Affair to Remember that I had to do a double take several times to convince myself that I wasn't looking at a different actress with the same name.

A small group of nuns are sent to the mountains to open a charitable school to the unwashed masses in the mountains. The aforementioned Sister Clodagh is the first to be introduced followed by a her subsidiaries that includes the very likeable Sister Ruth.

Sister Ruth is an interesting character. She is played by Kathleen Byron as dark, tortured and seemingly willing to break down very easily. This all comes to a head when she meets a charismatic enigma named Mr. Dean. Being a movie about nuns in a secluded convent - it seemed to be only a matter of time before there was some sort of love triangle. Sister Clodagh and Ruth both have bubbling feelings for Mr. Dean. Ruth is willing to admit it, but Clodagh is a character that keeps things more tightly under-wraps.

The audience learns that Clodagh was not always such a religious person. She was dating a man in Ireland and she was fully committed to marrying him. It is heavily implied that she had premarital sex with him - most likely her first and only time. The man then moved to the United States with no intention of inviting her along. In a fit of humiliation, Clodagh became a nun. There are several flashback scenes in which the audience is introduced to many of the temptations that continue to challenge Sister Clodagh's faith in the present time.

Mr. Dean's appearance alone screams manhood. He has rugged eyes and a copious amount of body hair. His smooth demeanor and mysterious actions uncover the deeply hidden sexual urges in Clodagh. Powell has described the film in saying "It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image from beginning to end. It is a film full of wonderful performances and passion just below the surface, which finally, at the end of the film, erupts." This, for me, is the perfect interpretation of Black Narcissus. Though it is filled with great performances, there is no more important aspect to the film than its underlying eroticism.

With all of this being said, Black Narcissus is still a Powell/Pressburger production. What does that mean? In my experience it means that the film will be visually amazing, have an intense ending and be...well...boring for about an hour of its runtime. The duo's later work on The Red Shoes is further evidence to that statement. In both films, the first hour is almost impossible to get through. Not only is it not interesting, but nothing really ever happens. Characters are introduced, developed and then lost without explanation. Themes are presented and then prematurely swept under the rug. Why was there nothing done to Mr. Dean after he shows up drunk to the Christmas church service? It just happened and then the story moved on without any closure or consequence.

Some of the sets in the film are breathtakingly fun to look at. Black Narcissus features Academy Award winning cinematography and set designs that thrust the desired visual onto the audience. My favorite shot in the film is the famous bell ringing shot on the side of the mountain. In a subtle foreshadow, Powell and Pressburger use this exact shot multiple times in the film in order to thoroughly convey how far of a fall it is off the mountain. Somehow this scene, along with a haunting score, is more frightening than even some of the more intense moments.

If a moviegoer is at all familiar with the work of Powell, they already expected Black Narcissus to look beautiful. The use of color, background, extras and moving cameras all compliment the rigid development of the nuns - especially Sister Ruth. Powell and Pressburger may not have always told interesting stories, but their films are almost always crafted with a snobbish attention to every detail.

And just like in all of the other movies I have seen by this team, Black Narcissus manages to lull you to sleep in order to slap you awake again by the drama surrounding the finale moments. For multiple reasons - the convent fails. Most of the nuns are sent home in shame, and the intensity leading up to this ending is what saves the film for me. Usually I am more than willing to spoil an ending, but I was so flabbergasted by the closing moments of Black Narcissus that I have decided to keep this review spoiler free. I have to admit, the film is painfully dry for over an hour. But if you want to watch a nun movie for its constant entertainment value then you can always watch Sister Act. Black Narcissus is a movie that slowly builds to a worthwhile climax. It numbs the mind for the sake of completely blowing it later. Stick around for the end. It is worth it.

Black Narcissus: B

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