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Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1947
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, Jean Simmons, Kathleen Byron, Jenny Laird, Judith Furese, May Hallatt
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Release Date: July 20, 2010
Rating: Not Rated for (minor violence, sensuality)
Run Time: 01h:41m:08s
Genre(s): drama

Sister Clodagh: We all need discipline. You said yourself, they're like children. Without discipline, we should all behave like children.
Mr. Dean: Don't you like children?
- Deborah Kerr, David Farrar


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Conflicts of many kinds are present in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus, set against the beauty and danger of the Himalayas. These include the shock of Anglo-Catholic nuns set in the midst of the mountains among natives who speak no English, the struggle between flesh and the spirit, between medicine and superstition, between vows and longing for a different life, and between the monied classes and the impoverished. The new Blu-ray Disc from The Criterion Collection brings a splendid film-like appearance to the ravishing visuals.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: A-

Deborah Kerr stars as Irish Sister Clodagh, a young nun who is sent to start a school and hospital in Mopu, in the mountains of India. She takes with her four other nuns of differing skills, but they no sooner arrive than they run afoul of the customs of the country. The resident holy man is on their grounds and will not be moved, the children will not attend the school without being paid to do so, and the general's son (Sabu) insists upon being educated even though he is a man and technically forbidden within the nunnery.

Before long, the sisters have fallen under an influence which shakes their community to the core. The film suggests a number of possibilities for the source of this influence, such as the British Agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the fact that the palace in which the nunnery is installed was once a harem, or it may just be the constant wind through the mountains and the crystal-clear air. Whichever one accepts as the cause (or it may be all of them), the restrained sisters soon are a seething mass of passions and sexual jealousies, with an underlying eroticism which culminates in Sister Ruth (Katherine Byron) going quite dangerously mad.

The presence and attitudes of Mr. Dean may well be the primary culprit here, for he is often seen in varying states of undress. As he speaks to Sister Clodagh trying to convince her and the others to pack up and leave, he twice gives a sidelong glance down at the nun's body, emphasizing the temptations and appeals of the flesh. Farrar gives a fine performance in this role, feigning indifference while still caring deeply about the native peoples and the well-being of the nuns.

Kerr sparkles as Sister Clodagh, haunted by her memories of her life before she took up the cloister. Byron is spectacular (and aided greatly by the lighting and Jack Cardiff's photography) as the unbalanced Sister Ruth. May Hallatt is excellent as the caretaker of the palace, Angu Ayah; unlike most 1940s comic relief, she manages to actually be quite funny indeed. A 17-year-old Jean Simmons sizzles as the erotic temptress Kanchi, who is unwillingly taken in by the nuns.

But the real star of this film is the visuals. There is almost always something fascinating on the screen to look at. Even though filmed entirely at Pinewood Studios, the backgrounds are incredibly convincing painted mattes which make one feel quite firmly planted in the Himalayas. When combined with elaborate camera angles, there is a feeling of vertiginous height and, quite appropriately, the feeling of living directly on the edge of the abyss. As Sister Ruth becomes more feverishly disturbed, the camera comes in closer and closer to her sweat-beaded face until finally just her deranged eyes fill the screen.

This immediate predecessor to Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes is a visual feast and a tour de force of acting which is not to be missed.

Video and Audio: The transfer is rendered quite nicely here, with the palette usually tending to soft and subtle colors, but on occasion (such as the old general's gaudy red and glittering gold tunic) the screen erupts with color, and it comes across beautifully. The skin textures and the weave of fabric are present in fine detail instead of being wiped out in the standard wash of digital video noise reduction. The HD treatment does point up some flaws, however, for the mattes and camera trickery are a good deal more visible here than they were on the standard DVD; in one sequence the mattes clearly don't line up right making a visible seam in the picture. There's also a slight instability to the color, with skin tones in particular occasionally wobbling into a greenish hue. That's annoying but it's unclear whether that may be a fault of the original film.

The audio is an undistinguished British 1.0 mono, with all the tinniness and lack of range that implies. However, it's a fairly clean track, with few issues that cannot be traced back to the limitations of the original.

Extras: Criterion gives us a splendid special edition of this film, the highlight of which is the 1988 commentary recorded by director Michael Powell in tandem with Martin Scorsese. The commentary is screen-specific. Powell gives a few behind-the-scenes stories, but the content mostly is confined to pointing out notable shots and performances. This isn't the most enlightening commentary, but it's certainly interesting to hear Powell talk. Scorsese is less useful, often indicating shots which he claims inspired sequences in his own films. However, he is certainly enthusiastic.

Much more interesting is the documentary on the cinematography of the film, Painting with Light. This 27-minute film includes interviews with the Oscar®-winning cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, and discussions of the technical aspects of three-strip Technicolor and the problems involved in getting the proper look for the film. This is certainly a welcome addition considering how very important the visuals are in this picture. The heavily speckled and damaged clips from the film included here make it clear how much restoration work has been done, for which we should all be appreciative.

A set of over 150 stills is included in a photo archive. These photos, selected from Powell's own collection, include production stills, behind-the-scenes photos and a few glimpses of deleted sequences. It's a shame that these deleted scenes apparently no longer exist, since they appear to add a dimension to the story and fill in some continuity (for instance, we there learn where Sister Ruth got her mukluks).

Also in the package is a lengthy theatrical trailer in decent condition, but nowhere near as pristine as the main feature. New to the Blu-ray disc is The Audacious Adventurer, an appreciation of the film and Powell by filmmaker Bernard Tavernier (who also supplies a video introduction to the feature) and the documentary Profile of Black Narcissus, featuring members of the Archers' production team. A booklet with an essay by critic Kent Jones completes a packed SE.

Posted by: Mark Zimmer - July 28, 2010, 3:38 pm - DVD Review
Keywords: nuns, himalayas, india, repression, insanity, nunsploitation

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