Movie Night with Urbaniak: Black Narcissus

Not Richard Roundtree.

I’d never seen Black Narcissus before, but it’s come up a number of times in conversations lately (as in “You’ve never seen Black Narcissus?!” or “Well, if you’re interested in Michael Powell, the place you should start is Black Narcissus.“).

I don’t know why I’ve put off seeing it, but for some reason I always thought it was another “hip,” updated retelling of a Greek myth a la Black Orpheus. Either that or a gritty 1970s Harlem crime thriller starring Richard Roundtree.  (“Narcissus is back, and this time — he’s black!“)

Anyway, it’s neither of those things. It’s an early Technicolor masterpiece about a bunch of nuns who try to open a convent on a mountain redoubt in the Himalaya. It’s photography was about ten years ahead of its time and its sexual tension was at least thirty.

Essentially an allegory about British colonialism, a group of uptight, sexually repressed British nuns (are there other kinds?) led by Sister Clodagh decide it’s a good idea to open a franchise in a “wild,” “simple” land where “the men are men, the women are women and the children are children.” The free, “childlike” ways of the locals and the clear mountain air conspire to drive all the nuns a little crazy as they struggle to reign in their desires and neuroses. English civilization crash-lands on the rocks of local superstition, the local prince falls in love with the local slut, and man trouble erupts in the form of local shirtless handyman Mr. Dean. Eventually the story devolves into a horror movie as one of the nuns, Sister Ruth, proves herself to be even more tightly wound than Sister Clodagh and becomes Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Deborah Kerr is measured and nuanced as Sister Clodagh and Kathleen Byron is appropriately high-strung as Sister Ruth, but otherwise the acting in the movie is about as broad and hysterical as it gets. British stage actors play Indians (talk about a director missing his own metaphor!) so big it’s as if they’re waiting for the applause to follow their most outrageous moments. Jean Simmons plays the Paris Hilton of the Himalaya with teeth-baring, hip-swiveling gusto. David Farrar should smolder and seduce as Mr. Dean, but instead he just kind of stands around and poses. As

   notes, it doesn’t help that he looks like Kevin Nealon, if Kevin Nealon underwent plastic surgery to look more like Daniel Day-Lewis.

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