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Sebastian Kelly
Sebastian Kelly

Black Narcissus(1947) ((NEW))

As Scorsese observes in his commentary, Sister Clodagh has another flashback later where she runs out the door, ready to embrace life and love, but it fades to black and she "goes off to nothing." All that awaits her there is the life of the suffering servant, a motif that runs from the Old Testament prophet of Isaiah to the New Testament figure of Christ.

Black Narcissus(1947)

The sequences that were excised included: (1) Sister Clodagh's four flashbacked and deeply-tormenting, buried inner memories of Ireland and her failed, unfulfilling emotional romance (symbolized by the deep chasm next to the convent), (2) some of the suggestive dialogue, and (3) the sequence depicting Sister Ruth's mad tirade and her application of carnal lipstick. Also, a disclaimer was added to suggest that the nuns were not Catholic but Anglican. The censored parts of the film were restored when the film was re-released in the US in the 1980s. Other controversial scenes included the provocative and censor-defying dance through the palace's painted bordello room by beautiful, alluring, orphaned local Indian maiden Kanchi. She later closed her eyes and sensuously smelled the perfumed essence (of black narcissus) of the Himalayan General's nephew.

At the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta (Bengal), India, the Reverend Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) opened a letter, but before reading it, she viewed a stylized colonial engraved painting of "The Palace of Mopu" reprinted in a book. The open book rested upon stark black-and-white photographs of the present-day palace.

She had stressed the main belief of the order - that hard work and toiling was the way to salvation, since it kept the mind from frivolous, earthly distractions. Sister Clodagh was determined to prove her worthiness ("I understand") since it was her first leadership assignment. The sequence dissolved slowly to blackness.

Although Sister Blanche was enthusiastic about the idea of hordes of locals who had arrived to be schooled, Sister Ruth condescendingly criticized her compassionate optimism about the situation and downplayed how she would persevere with rudimentary blackboard lessons taught to the "stupid" natives:

In Sister Ruth, we see the dark side of a passionate and unstable nature that has been kept unnaturally repressed. Sister Ruth is frequently associated with the colour red. After unwisely treating a bleeding patient, she has blood on her clothes at one point. Even when she faints later on, it is not in a black-out but in a red-out, the screen suddenly filled with a blinding scarlet.

Soon the red imagery gives way to black imagery as Sister Ruth becomes dangerous. The camera offers a close-up of her mad eyes. She stands with her hair disordered, and her red dress appearing dark against the night. Loud choral music adds to the sense of melodrama.

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University: It had been a black and white war in England. The Blitz had brought devastation to London and Portsmouth and Coventry and a dozen other major cities, leaving rubble that would take a decade to clear away and rebuild. The U-boat offensive had nearly strangled the country, reducing the average Briton's diet to something like prison fare; rationing of some commodities continued for years. And the effort of arming and provisioning a far-flung navy, army, and air force had drained the island nation of anything like luxuries -- let alone new clothes and automobiles. And there were the dead -- 244,000 British soldiers, and 60,000 civilians. Peace dawned gray and tired in England. Into this monochromatic and weary culture came the Technicolor films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's remarkable production company, The Archers. Their work must have seemed like a perverse and delightful rainbow in that age of austerity. Beginning in wartime with films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and extending to 1953's international success The Red Shoes, The Archers brought a world of exoticism and intoxicating sexuality to Britain's screens, in a sustained flourish of cinematic colour which has never been equaled. They clearly influenced the great American postwar masters of expressive color, Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, and directors of the next generation like Martin Scorcese point to The Archers as an inspiration for their own commitment to the fantastic possibilities of color in the cinema. Films like Scorcese's New York, New York and Francis Coppola's One from the Heart are personal valentines to the spirit of The Archers. Among The Archers' color masterworks (Blimp, The Red Shoes, Tales of Hoffman, A Matter of Life and Death) 1947's Black Narcissus stands out for its portrait of mad passions rendered in a palette that must have seemed almost unbearably intense in 1947. The film is based on Rumer Godden's 1939 novel about a group of nuns who find themselves the unwilling tenants of a Himalayan castle-turned-convent, clinic, and school. "Castle" is a euphemism, for the structure was once the home of a warlord's concubines, and its profane heritage seems to infuse the nuns' domicilage there with an unrepressible, even eerie eroticism. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, in perhaps her finest role) attempts to tame both her charges (the local population) and her fellow nuns. The children of her school, including an exquisite young prince (Sabu, in the crowning moment of his career), attend smilingly to their lessons, but without noticeable interest in exchanging their expansively earthy customs for the constrictions of Catholic guilt. The nuns, however, are in trouble from the first. It is a cold wind that blows through the ambitiously-named St. Faith's, clinging to the sheer walls of an angular mountain, but it brings with it the heat of jealousy and romance. Sister Philippa's (Flora Robson) garden is overrun with resplendent, "useless" flowers, crowding out her practical crop of vegetables. The nuns' medical ministrations can't prevent the death of an infant. Soon, the colony is divided against itself, as Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) compete for the attentions of the local British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) a professional cynic who has gone happily native. Sister Ruth's passions overflow their fragile vessel, and her slow and subtle derangement is among the great performances of madness ever put on the screen. Powell and Pressburger passed up the opportunity to film on location. Instead, they turned to two masters of illusion, art director Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, to invent an Orientalist landscape as timeless and placeless as that of The Wizard of Oz' Emerald City or Lost Horizon's Shangri-La. The results are beyond description. The rocky fastnesses and overblooming gardens of the film, rendered in the super-saturated hues of true Technicolor, give the film a sensual and otherworldly quality. And yet, not a foot of film was shot outside of England, something a first-time viewer of the film finds almost impossible to credit. (Even the "Indian gardens" of the film were found on a Sussex estate called Leonardslee Gardens; England's moist, mild climate turned out to make suitable soil for many tropical plants.) Junge built the film's gigantic House of Women/St. Faith's set on the backlot of Pinewood Studios, and through his artistry with matte paintings and Cardiff's skillful cinematography, transport us to a nameless valley high in the Himalayas. Cardiff's facility with the huge, 600-pound Technicolor camera still astonishes modern cameramen and women who see the film. Three-strip Technicolor required that sets be virtually flooded with light, yet Cardiff paints St. Faith as a place of real as well as moral shadows, a gloomy cloister of lust and envy. His touch with color is as delicate as it is emphatic; the film's most daring sequence is resolved by the carmine red of a woman's lipstick, and the moment is tragically unforgettable. In later years, Powell second-guessed his decision not to film on location; shooting in India, he thought, would have made Black Narcissus more realistic. But who would have wanted it that way? What began as a portrait of an exotic land and its people became an exotic thing in itself, a hothouse creation inconceivable without the resources of a big studio and its gifted magician/craftspeople. Said Powell, "In Black Narcissus, I started out almost as a documentary director and ended up as a producer of opera." 041b061a72


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