Black Narcissus (streaming on the Criterion Channel or for rent on Amazon Prime) is not my favorite movie, nor even my favorite of the films I’ve seen lately. Even so, it looks beautiful. Indeed, part of its draw is the cinematography, which Criterion has made to look incredible, especially for a film produced in 1947. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger always seem to stop just this side of over-the-top melodrama, but only just. While there are moments that tend toward silliness, the overall story retains its power. (By the way, do not tell the cultural cancellers that Jean Simmons plays a native girl in dark face paint!)
The narrative idea appeals to me: a group of nuns takes over a former “palace” high in the Indian Himalayas, far from their mannered, English origin. That it takes place in British colonial India adds a layer of tension to the conflicts they face. Further, the contrast is drawn starkly between the nuns and their convent because the building used to house the prince’s women, and its walls are painted with sensual images.
I haven’t read Rumer Godden’s book on which this film is based, but the themes from In This House of Brede are recognizable in the tensions between the nuns and the outside world, as well as the tensions among the nuns themselves. They do not leave their personalities, faults, and desires at the convent door when they make their vows. And whatever my feelings about the film as a film, the central theme remains intact: the lines we draw to compartmentalize our lives are never as impermeable as we believe.
Though the obvious implication of the title indicates that each nun is required to overcome her own innate selfishness, it is also a fragrance that, in the movie, comes from the outside, interrupting the world they are trying to create. The sisters, according to their own histories, all face memories of things they thought they had left behind. Not least of these is Sister Clodagh, all of a sudden remembering her almost-fiancé, from whom she thought she had moved on. And Sister Ruth, who was never comfortable in her habit (represented by her frequent illnesses), is pushed to the edge (pun intended) by her inability to renounce a regular life in the world.
Whether or not one believes that monastic life is a good thing, it is common among Christians to believe there is a definite delineation between life pre- and post-conversion. And while that is true as far as God in Christ is concerned, the fact that the old has gone and the new has come is never as unambiguous in practice as it is by faith. We believe in resurrection, in the new creation, in the new man in Christ, in righteousness, but that is far from what we see or experience. And the monastic life as a narrative device gets at that because it is meant to be a life lived apart from the life lived within the world.
[MAJOR SPOILER, BUT THIS IS A FILM FROM 1947, SO…]
In the end, Mr. Dean’s prediction comes true that the nuns will leave by the time the rains break. But for Sister Clodagh, her failure becomes the true humility that Mother Dorothea feared she didn’t have when she was assigned to be the Sister Superior. Ruth’s death was only the most obvious piece of evidence that they couldn’t complete what they started. Though there are wider cultural and societal ideas that could be explored, including the implications of missionary work within a colonial context, Black Narcissus is fundamentally about any relationships within a community, and the many things that tear at their bonds, both among themselves and from the outside. For that reason, it’s a timeless movie, even if the film itself is bound to its time.