“When she is selected to open a nunnery in the Himalayas, Sister Clodagh must hold the nuns together against the indifferent forces of the mountain, the conflicts with villagers, and the emerging pasts of the nuns that threaten to pull them apart.”
Directed By: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Rated: PG13, 100 min
Black Narcissus begins with the image of an elderly mother superior, frowning over a letter by the light of a window in Calcutta. When she finishes reading the letter, she folds it away and crosses a spare, white walled room to look at a picture of a palace in the Himalayas. She has much to think about but doesn’t linger over the picture because imagination is sometimes a capacity of the weak, rather than the strong. Instead the mother superior sends a young Indian girl for sister Clodagh and when she arrives, and she is seated behind her desk, she tells Clodagh that she will be the youngest sister superior in their order, and that she will establish St. Faith in a remote palace, high in the mountains. Sister Clodagh’s lips tighten and she quickly lowers her eyes. Her Mother superior frowns slightly, pauses, and continues.
Later, after Sister Clodagh asks Mother Dorothea to grant her nuns to help set up St. Faith, Mother Dorothea surprises Clodagh by giving her a truly useful team, except one: Sister Briony who will lend her strength, Sister Philippa who will grow food, Sister Honey who will make her popular, and sister Ruth, who will test Clodagh with her own doubts. The Mother Superior explains that Ruth needs to feel important. When Clodagh questions whether Ruth should receive any special attention the Mother Superior wryly comments that Clodagh should share her own sense of importance, if she can. Clodagh questions with rigid politeness whether Mother Dorothea supports her promotion and without shame or slightest hesitation the mother superior replies that no, she’s not happy that Sister Clodagh was assigned this task. She doesn’t believe that Clodagh is ready. In this moment we see an old woman, adept with power because she’s weathered its punishments, looking down the years at a young woman on the threshold of responsibility, brittle because proud, sanctimonious in order to display virtue, slightly haughty because she’s afraid that she won’t please her superiors and yet she knows she works harder than anyone else. Most of all though, Clodagh feels desire for what she feels she must own.
The nuns travel to a palace perched impossibly on the side of a cliff. The old general of the valley built Mopu to keep his women but Mopu is a house of winds and no one stays for long. Mr. Dean, an Englishman who works for the general, sometimes travels up to it but he lives in the town below, away from the wind. He pesters the nuns, teases Sister Clodagh, and chases her desperately but he always returns to the town. The villagers don’t approach it. The only two people who have lasted from the old days are Ayah, the housekeeper who keeps nothing, and the holy man, who has not moved from his rock in years and does not eat or sleep or talk.
The sisters come up the mountain with their plans to build a school and a hospital and they come with their boxed relics and their curtains to make somber and modest the scenes of painted lovemaking on the walls. They will plant a garden, they will heal the people, and they will teach them and hold masses. They mean to last. But the people are not sick. They show up to the convent, but only because the general pays them. Mr. Dean says of the people that the men are men, the women are women, and the children are children. They are a race of children and the Child never changes, though people might age and grow out of childhood. Men and women who record history, and build in stone seek to alter the structure of the universe. The peoples that build and live in grass dwellings, and mountain villages, exist as perfect circles, as obedient to their natures as the rock that stands or the water that falls or the wind that blows. They are complete within themselves because they search for nothing and they are unchained to the future by a lineage of memory, or a concept of progress. When the light dawns on the valley it dawns without difference on the faces of the rocks or the people.
In the face of the indifferent rock, and the vast landscape, the endless wind, and the people who live in impervious savagery, the nuns begin to recall their old lives. They have all joined the convent for various reasons, but the reasons until then remained hidden and forgotten. The nuns take on several projects. Sister Clodagh tries to keep them disciplined and at work. They start sowing circles and take in a young girl whose passions may get her into trouble. An eager young general joins them in order to study. But the secret pasts of the nuns, so long trimmed and kept cloistered out of the light, begin to flourish like a garden of weeds. A woman stands on the edge of a sheer cliff, her habit drawn tight around her by the wind, and feels the pleasure of standing on edge. She pulls the rope and the bell tolls and tolls and tolls. Somewhere, distantly, a horn answers.
I had the strange experience to live in a monastery once. At first, the monks seemed as gravely holy and anonymous as the painted and halo gilded saints on the walls of their church. After a while, though, I came to know them as people. I saw each of the men they had been, the mechanics, the doctors, the farmers, the second sons left without a cent, the deserters of the army, that the man in front of me had wrapped in a cowl and buried when he took his vow. The men they had been lay concealed in a mystery and a ritual like a memento hidden in a box of spiced wood. Two of the monks made a deep impression on me. One them took me under his guidance to tell me of all the evils he avoided when he renounced his earthly life. The other was an artist. He never volunteered the information until I asked why he became a monk and he took me to a studio of Ikon paintings. He had me examine the straight and symmetrical lines of the saints he painted.
“Clean lines,” he admired, not proudly of his own work, but proud of lines themselves. The geometry sang to him.
“To be a monk is the only way I can make clean lines all day and nothing else.”
I thought of those two monks as I watched the nuns battle with their personal lives that threaten to overcome them in the wide clear indifferent world of the mountains. Sister Clodagh tries to maintain her failing grip on the order but she’s fighting with the wind. She faces adversaries that can’t be beaten – the wind, the clear air, the mountains lying about them like the bared bones of gods, a man who asks nothing of anyone and only keeps vigil, day and night, over the world. If she fought these forces she would only perpetrate evil. She must endure. She recognizes this when Sister Phillipa, my favorite character, asks to be removed from the nunnery because she can’t plant the gardens with simple peas and potatoes. She can’t help planting flowers. When she admits this to sister Clodagh, she begins to weep. Later, she lays a bouquet of these flowers beneath a statue of Christ, as if presenting him with all her many colored faults.
Black Narcissus works like a character study that focuses on Clodagh and on the women around her, honing in on them as they approach her. Clodagh is a woman with a past and a leader who must fight a battle of endurance against forces as natural as love or memory or wind. We watch her transform from an ambitious, rigidly sanctimonious figure into a weary leader. By the end of the film, she has shed her pretensions and shown real strength against an implacable and indifferent enemy. She learns how to lose and that there might be a greater grace in giving way. This is not a film that glorifies its characters. In some ways, the story is as unforgiving as its setting. I felt myself resenting the film at first because I thought I could predict exactly where it would meander, the way a typical English story might, but it never went the way I thought it would. It sort of float upwards and leaves you on the ground, looking into the distance. By the end of the film, you feel, as Clodagh does, almost entirely alone and you realize how much you loved everyone with their beautiful flaws. Clodagh and Mr. Dean will never kiss, as they want to, and don’t pause to think about it because imagination is sometimes a quality of the weak, rather than the strong. In their separate and private lives, they’ve each known the previous version of the other. He loved a girl like her once. She loved a man like him once. Now that’s in the past and while from Mopu the past can be seen, as the scenes of pleasure are remembered on the walls, it cannot be brought back. Mopu is a house of wind and nothing stays long.
Sister Clodagh intends to garden the valley with discipline and order. But man’s laws, just like his pleasures, are short lived. Long before the nuns can write their laws in stone their relics will return to their boxes and their curtains will come down, just as the monks came the year before the sisters and left, and before them came others who left also. The people of Mopu last no longer than the pleasures that once took place in the many rooms and now are commemorated in silent testimonial on the cold walls. The wind will blow the people away, just as the wind carries the fallen feathers of the aviary in jeweled gusts through the halls. Only the cold paintings of warm pleasures will remain, and the ghosts, and Ayah, who they speak to.
My Rating: 9.0