Review of Black Narcissus (1947)

Moving picture, 101 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Nuns set up a school and hospital in a remote Himalayan castle, where the old “women’s room” has pornographic murals.

As expected, even in the final year of the British Raj, the Himalayan people are carelessly exoticized. Oddly, this includes an inversion of the psychological theory of motivational crowding out. The local lord (“old general”) pays the superstitious locals to go to the new nun-run hospital, so they all go, pretending to be sick. The lord’s plan is to gradually reduce these payments until the people go by habit and would resent being paid to do so, which is not how the human mind works. The effects of scientific medicine are largely ignored. We see nobody who is happy or grateful to be cured, which in itself is a surprising lacuna; this is not a white saviour narrative.

Importantly, the exotic locale is not Blavatsky’s Tibet. There is no organized competition with Christianity, just a yogi who remains silent throughout. Christianity is instead rivaled by nature itself. The air and water are “too” clean. Sister Philippa, instructed to plant vegetables, plants flowers. When she ultimately fails in her quest to establish the nunnery, Sister Clodagh says “I couldn’t hide the mountain”, meaning the austerity of her order is irreconcilable with and must lose to the natural world. This is beautifully done and pairs well with David Farrar’s sexually objectified agent Dean and the gentle flashbacks to Clodagh’s happier past.

All in all, a solid drama in good colour. The prestige production shows lots of endearing little mistakes: Trouble adjusting focus depth in a mobile closeup, trouble tracking a candle with a spotlight, obvious matt paintings (and some good ones!), and bad artificial rain in the closing shot.

References here: Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019).

moving picture fiction