Whenever you volunteer to participate in a Secret Santa Exchange, you run the risk of displeasing the person that you choose from the pool. Even worse, you could be subjected to a gift from someone that does not know you well and dumps a gift on you that might only be appropriate for a White Elephant party exchange. When you make it a movie review exchange, the danger is heightened, after all, someone can't just shrug "Thanks" and put the gift aside and ignore it. Here, you have to live with the gift for a while. A two hour film takes up that much time, if you are ordering it on line you may be paying for the privilege of watching your gift. Then you have to figure out what to say about it. If you hate it, that might offend someone who only was trying to share something they love and instead of discovering another friend online, you have created an enemy. All the same, with a film review/swap, I still think you should honestly express your views on the gift, that is what someone else was looking for.
So far in participating in the Secret Santa Reviews on the Cinematic Katzenjammer, I have been lucky. No films that test my patience, morality or my stomach. I'm not sure how Nick decides to pair up films with participants. If he uses a random process then I have been under Fortune's good star, if as editor, he screens films and matches them with people that he thinks might fit well with the move, then Good Job Nick. I was pleased to receive my assignment and even more pleased when I opened it up and examined it closely, it is a cinematic gem. "Black Narcissus" is a movie I have heard about for decades and never got around to seeing. Much like a book that has been assigned to you rather than pulled off the shelf and borrowed under your own will, a movie can feel like a chore because it is expected of you to have seen it. Like "The Great Gatsby" or "1984" in high school, "Black Narcissus" turns out to be something that will stick with me because I liked it rather than it being a mere assignment to get out of the way.
With that set up out of the way, let me explain the features of the film that I most enjoyed and that I think would be appealing to other film lovers. There are three distinct pleasures that I derived from my screening of the film; it is breathtakingly beautiful, it is overtly sexual (at least for 1947) and it is freakishly weird in character development. It deserves it's reputation as a classic film, I just don't know that everyone will know why without having a little better peek at it.
Michael Powell, who shares credit with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, is known for his visual style. He was responsible for the look of "The Thief of Baghdad" and made "The Red Shoes", one of the most iconic color films of the early part of cinema history. This movie revels in colors and camera angles and lighting that are startlingly beautiful and interesting at the same time. Along with legenday cameraman Jack Cardiff, Powell gives us some vertigo inducing views of not just mountains but dining halls, chapels and even people.
A key location in the film is the bell that the nuns use to announce the start of the day to the valley of natives below them. It is located on an outcrop from the palace, right on the edge of a precipice that would intimidate even seasoned base jumpers. The view is spectacular, but as I have already said, it is an illusion. The location is not a mountain top and what we see is largely special photographic effects, but they will put to shame much of the CGI wizardry that now dominates film making.
While I am not quite done mentioning the look of the film, I want to transition to the sexual nature of the movie. A film featuring nuns that was made in 1947 may not seem like a rich subject for erotic psychology but this film is loaded with references and images that seem to scream out "SEX" in spite of the subdued way in which the story progresses. The palace that the sisters take over, is referred to as a palace, but it was actually the location of the harem for the General's grandfather. He kept his women there and the caretaker makes a passing comment that it is now to be occupied again by women. The decaying but opulent interior is splashed with erotic murals from Indian culture. It might have been the first thing that nuns could be expected to do but to cover or paint over them. It never happens. In many of the interactions that take place during the story, the murals remain in the background. When the nuns arrive at the palace, they are greeted by the General's agent Mr. Dean. He is an Englishman who has nearly gone native. He is barely dressed each time he encounters the sisters, his shirt opened across his chest and his legs exposed by shorts. He seems to resent that the women are unavailable to him because of their vows, but makes it clear that he has a particular need for women. His suggestion that the education of the young women of the district would be beneficial to him carries with it a strange sexual undertone. He lingers over a piece of tapestry with an erotic scene painted on it as he verbally fences with the new Mother Superior. While several of the nuns
are older, two are young enough to be attractive to a man in his late thirties or early forties. Deborah Kerr plays the tense new
Superior, a woman who has come to the order as a release from the pain of a failed love affair that left her a marked woman in her native Irish land. We never get the full story behind Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, but it is strongly suggested that she is an emotionally damaged woman of loose morals who is seeking celibacy as a way of righting her mind. All of the sisters are effected by the location. It is hinted that even the oldest and most down to earth nun, Sister Phillipa has allowed erotic thoughts to distract her from her duties as the gardener for the convent.
A young Jean Simmons, plays a native of the district who appears to be orphaned and also something of a vixen. She is deposited with the sisters as a way of keeping her out of Mr. Dean's bedroom, which he surprisingly does not want her occupying. Her presence stirs the pot of eroticism even more. In a couple of scenes she seductively vamps in front of a mirror or dances with a lewd twerk in her hips in the former bathing lounge of the brothel nee palace.
The characters frankly become even more strange than they started out as. The atmosphere starts to close in on them and the haunting location and images spark desires and tip egos in ways that seem melodramatic but understandable. We have been set up for some of these elements by the winds whispering constantly through the film. The way the habits move of their own accord suggests that the women are not quite in control of their own behaviors.