The Masters  
The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Submitted by Roger Mellor

Black Narcissus (1946)

By: Andrew Hicks

Thinking back through movie history, where can you find a truly compelling dramatic story of a nun encountering adversity and doubts of her mission? And I don't want to hear anyone say Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis in Change of Habit. This 1946 film brings us complex layers of emotion and intelligence sometimes buried in violent overacting by its cast and a too-loud string score, but Black Narcissus is always fascinating, thought-provoking and way ahead of its time.

Deborah Kerr plays a nun who is sent to convert an abandoned Himalayan general's palace into a center for worship, learning and healing for the townfolk. She takes a group of nuns with her who, one by one, shirk their duties when they realize just how beautiful the surroundings are and how hopeless their mission seems. As one of them puts it, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter they've helped one person? Profound questions for a Truman-era film.

Sensual pleasures arise not only with their surroundings but in the form of two men -- a Brit (David Farrar) hired by the general and a young Indian prince (Sabu) who wants to bunk with the nuns and study various languages and disciplines within the realm of Catholicism. He drives some of the nuns mad with passion, as does Farrar, whose undisciplined, crass behavior (e.g. showing up drunk at Christmas mass) frustrates Kerr just enough to make her secretly long for him.

Black Narcissus is certainly one of the most ambitious films ever made. It captures the beauty of nature with elaborate shots just shy of Citizen Kane in their cinematic scope, and the questions and issues it raises are strangely undiluted for a time period when religious leaders could stifle any instances of perceived blasphemy. In this case, what was disguised as a tribute to the devotion of nuns was really a forum to raise points about the uncertainty of blind faith and the doubts innate to any human. And it would have worked so much better without the soap opera acting and Percy Faith-style strings.

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