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Black Narcissus (April 20, 2011)

In the middle of the 1940s, when Hollywood’s occasional look at nuns showed them as confident, unquestioning, but otherwise normal women who had left the regular arrangements of society behind for a strong relationship with God – think of Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) or Loretta Young in Come to the Stable (1949) – Black Narcissus, this British film, was released. It was the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the writer-director-producer team responsible for so many of the most stunning films produced in the United Kingdom in the 1940s and early 1950s. Powell was born in 1905 in England, Pressburger in 1902 in Hungary. Pressburger worked in the film industry as a screenwriter in Berlin and Paris before ending up in London and meeting Powell there. They wrote the scripts together, and directed and produced the films together under the name “The Archers”.

Black Narcissus was based on a novel by Rumer Godden, who had been a British child growing up under the Raj in India, and it was released in Britain in May, 1947 and in the United States in December, 1947. The nuns in Black Narcissus are definitely involved in personal conflict, and having given up something to be who they have become is not a matter that is easy for them or something that doesn’t cause them continued soul-searching. Deborah Kerr, the lead, was described as “excellent as the overconfident, young Sister Superior who is humbled by adversities” by Thomas Pryor in the New York Times in 1947. Kerr’s long career as an international film star started, essentially, in British films, with a supporting role as a Salvation Army girl in Gabriel Pascal’s Major Barbara in 1941, and with a bravura, multiple-character lead role in Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943. After Black Narcissus her next role was in Hollywood. Another performance many have found memorable in this movie is that of Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth.

This film won two Oscars. Alfred Junge won for best art direction-set direction in color, and Jack Cardiff won for best color cinematography. Both were long-time collaborators with Powell and Pressburger and their groundbreaking work on this picture is evident in every frame. The ravishing images and sometimes harrowing portrayals in Black Narcissus will stay with you, if you’ve never seen it before. I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.