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Black Narcissus (1947)   rating

Review: written 2007

Simmering repressed emotions as painted with colour

 Black Narcissus (1947)

Powell and Pressburger in the 40's were a sure fire guarantee of cinema that was imaginative, innovative and involving – this was them working at the pinnacle of their career.

In this movie, we have Deborah Kerr as a nun who has been sent as Mother Superior to a palace (and former harem) in India in the shadow of the Himalayas to make of it a school and dispensary. However the location and its otherworldliness begin to gnaw at the nuns in different ways, digging up old forgotten memories of their previous lives, and forcing one all the way to madness. The presence of the Englishman who is their only source of help, only adds to a simmering atmosphere of repressed emotion which threatens to burst out as time progresses.

On the surface just another British melodrama, this was made into much more, using the relatively new and cumbersome Technicolor process for heretofore unimagined uses. While America was using colour as a way of making musicals and location work bigger and more exciting, Powell and Pressburger were finding ways of using it as a way of expressing the internal - emotions as colour.

As a melodrama this might seem a little dated by modern viewers eyes, however as an expression of the dichotomy between our human nature and the nature of religion (in this case Christianity) this is a fascinating and timeless piece - and as a piece of cinema, this will stay with you for a very long time, with its stunning expressionist style and startling colours. There is a moment, when a nun driven mad appears in a doorway with murderous thoughts in mind, which is more chilling than anything I have seen in a long time, all captured in one look through extraordinary lighting. The achievements in creating such a vivid and authentic atmosphere are all the more amazing considering the whole thing was shot in Pinewood studios.

 Black Narcissus (1947)

Jack Cardiff's pioneering use of Technicolor shows how he was guided by an admiration not for the technical side but for the artistry, quoting Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt as influences in his fascinating technique. Whether you simply enjoy a good melodrama, or are a student of cinema as art, or just like to keep up with the movies Scorcese recommends, this is worth watching.

 Black Narcissus (1947)

 Black Narcissus (1947)

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