Watched: January 28 2017
Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
Starring: Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Judith Furse, Jenny Laird, Sabu, Jean Simmons
Runtime: 1h 40min
Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is tasked with starting a convent high up in the Himalayas. To aid in her quest, she is offered four companions; Briony the Strong (Furse), Philippa the Gardener (Robson), Blanche (aka Honey) the Sweet (Laird), and Ruth the Difficult (Byron). Together, they travel to the great unknown to start a school and a hospital for the locals.
They quickly establish a school where they teach children about guns, and a hospital where they treat people who are sick, but not too sick. With the help of government agent Mr Dean (Farrar) and the local General (which is apparently a code name for royalty), who pays locals to visit the convent, the nuns flourish, at least for a while. They also take in a young local girl, Kanchi (Simmons), who has been hitting hard on Mr Dean with no luck.
When the Young General (Sabu – an actual Indian) comes to learn, the sisters are sceptical about admitting a man into their midst, but they eventually let him join their lessons, which Kanchi is thrilled about.
As the film progresses, all the nuns experience changes. Sister Philippa has a crisis of faith and ends up planting flowers instead of the vegetables she’s supposed to be growing for the convent. Sister Clodagh keeps having flashbacks to her life prior to life as a nun, reliving her past relationship back in Ireland with a man she thought she would marry. Sisters Blanche and Briony have to make some tough choices in regards to a sick infant, one which has consequences for all the nuns. However, sister Ruth’s break from reality is the most intense and sinister, which makes the last 20 minutes of the film play more like a horror film than the melodrama of the first hour.
Ruth falls in love (or lust) with Mr Dean, and she becomes insanely jealous of Clodagh as she suspects (rightly or not) that the Sister Superior feels the same way. While the nuns blame the clear air and the water of their new home for their new emotions, it is quite possible that the convent itself might be partly to blame. We learn early on that the palace used to be a House of Women – a house for concubines and wives of the royals, and it seems the women go mad with lust and desire, in some form or another, in this building.
We enjoyed this film a lot. We have to admit that for the first 50 minutes we were not entirely sure what the point was – why was this film made? Beautiful as it was, it didn’t seem to be going clearly in any one direction. However, everything comes together in the last half. It is a strange and bizarre film, but we loved it nonetheless. Ruth’s transformation is wonderfully creepy and the endless drumming towards the end of the film are very reminiscent of I Walked with a Zombie, which adds to the feeling of horror of the last half hour. If you’re up for something weird and unusual, you should check out Black Narcissus. It’s quite the experience.
What we learned: Europeans eat sausages wherever they go. Interpret that as you wish.
Next time: Brighton Rock (1947)