While ideas of culture and religion are important to Black Narcissus, the more I watch the film, the more I see these ideas as a means for the film to explore the tension between discipline and desire. The cultural conflict between the West and the East, the civilized and the savage, the Christian and the unsaved are categories to explore the ongoing battle between discipline and desire.
The setup is filled with imagery that evokes this thematic conflict. A group of nuns led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) take up inhabitance at a former brothel in order to start a school and hospital for the people living in the Himalayan Mountains. As the nuns arrived covered with thick, bulky garb, they’re surrounded by paintings of nubile women. The former brothel sits on top of a hill, firmly built and strongly placed, while the town bellow is primitive and ramshackle.
Other elements of the story and filmmaking reinforce these contrasts. The British consulate for the area is Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a man who dresses more like a five year old boy and constantly makes inappropriate suggestions towards the nuns. Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh constantly clash over the course of the film, allowing arrogance and pride to make them belittle the other.
There are also strong visual contrasts. The set on the mountain has more subdued colors than the few scenes in the film that take place in the jungle with lush, vibrant colors. Jack Cardiff’s amazing cinematography also allows the color red to pop as the color of desire. The wind in the soundtrack becomes associated with the wind of desire the rushes through the disciplined lives of the nuns. Even the costuming, the white of the nuns contrasted with the lush, vibrant colors of the native’s garbs, reinforces the divide between discipline and desire.
From this setup, it would be easy to preach or moralize on either the abuse and hypocrisy of the religious elite or the squalor and decadence of irreligious people. Instead, the film explores how either extreme leads to an unhealthy balance. To give oneself over to either is ultimately unwise.
When the film starts, Sister Clodagh’s strong drive towards a life of strict discipline and rules makes her callous and uncaring towards others. She’s blunt, runs over other people in the name of order. She teaches her own faith in a ridged form of moralism that seems to be incapable of enjoying or taking delight in the object of her worship.
On the other end of the extreme, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) finds desires welling up within her and once those take grip in the final act, she finds herself enslaved to her desires. She foolishly proclaims love for Mr. Dean and when she is rebuffed she chases after the only other strong desire she has: the desire to get revenge on Sister Clodagh.
Ultimately, Black Narcissus doesn’t show us how to live but how not to live. A life of extremes, one where given over to too much control or none at all, will suffocate and destroy us. The film ends with the nunnery as a failure. Far from being a condemnation, the film is quick to reminds us that failure is part of life, a way of learning, and that we must take our failures forward with us if we ever hope to progress towards a healthy balance.
2 thoughts on “The Second Criterion: ‘Black Narcissus’”
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I fucking love this movie. I definitely need the Criterion DVD. My favorite scene involves Sister Ruth putting on that lipstick and pissing off Sister Clodagh. Kathleen Byron was fucking hot in that.