Today... nuns in the Himalayas in Black Narcissus (1947). I had never seen Black Narcissus before this week and that sort of virginity is sacrilege. Lose it if you haven't. Watch this film.
The movie tells the story of a new convent in the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh is the superior. She's played by Deborah Kerr, who is absolutely deserving here of one of her other Best Actress noms. Her Mother Superior, who doesn't think she's ready, gives her a ragtag team of nuns to take with her into the mountains. They're character-pegged so quickly it's like Clodagh is Snow White and these are her
Once the sisters have hit the Himalayas they struggle with adapting to the strange culture and social attitudes. It's not just the altitude. It doesn't help that their strongest ally is the tall dark and handsome Mr Dean (David Farrar) -- there's one particular amusing shot of this hairy man, shirtless, in a sea of white habits -- who reminds Clodagh and Ruth of other lives they could have led.
I don't want to spoil the movie but let's just say that things don't go as well as Clodagh had hoped and everyone starts to unravel. Nobody is ever exactly forthcoming about what they're feeling but the actresses and the color are evocative enough to externalize these interior ruptures. I love this shot late in the movie when Clodagh is frightened.
You can see how expressively cinematographer Jack Cardiff has lit the chapel (he won an Oscar for this film) but it also reminds us that it's a highly vertical film. Everything from candles to Mr. Dean to the architecture and mountains is tall and thin, thrusting upward or downward. In this shot Clodagh has seen a frightening red figure above. The red light is spilling downward turning the chapel pink, spoiling Clodagh's (blue) cool. She's worried. And she should be.
But here's my choice for Best Shot.
This image, about a half hour into the film, ends the first flashback to Clodagh's life before the nunnery. Now, dissolves aren't revolutionary and flashbacks are often used to contrast past with present. But the brilliance here is that the choice is so thematically resonant, so unsettlingly inexact and so emotionally spot on. In a movie made today they'd probably morph the images during the dissolve and they'd lose the dissonance. This dissolve is not just the past contrasted with present, it's identity versus identity. The more familiar sight of this gorgeous colorful actress playing a woman in love dissolves very slowly back into this colorless austere nun she's become who doesn't even seem to love god that much. Here's the brilliant kick: the dialogue (from the flashback) during this deliberately extended dissolve goes like so...
"I don't want to go away. I want to stay here like this for the rest of my life."It sounds like the truth but it looks exactly like a lie.
Now the woman she once was is starting to bleed back into her current pent up self. Sister Clodagh is losing control.
The Convent of the Holy 'Hit Me' Order
Check out these amazing participating articles. There's so much to say about this film. I didn't even have space to talk about one of the dirtiest images I've ever seen in a 1940s film in which Jean Simmons al... well, see the movie!
- Antagony & Ecstasy Father Brayton rejects his vows.
- Serious Film Father Cusumano stops the bleeding.
- Brown Okinawa Father Paolo blossoms in the spring.
- Against the Hype Father Colin sees Sister Clodagh's soul.
- Rope of Silicon Father Brad warned us of the sins of the flesh a whole year ago.
Other Films in This Series
- Angels in America (2003)
- X-Men (2000)
- Showgirls (1995)
- Bring It On (2000)
- A Face in the Crowd (1957)
- Pandora's Box (1929)
- Se7en (1995)
- Requiem for a Dream (2000)