Black Narcissus

Released:  1947

Cast:  Deborah Kerr, Sabu, Jean Simmons, David Farrar, Flora Robson

Oscar Wins:  Best Cinematography, Color (Jack Cardiff), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (Alfred Junge)

SUMMARY:  Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is a nun at the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary in Calcutta, India, when she is picked to be the Reverend Sister of a new school to be established at Mopu.  This school, which will also function as a hospital, is to be housed in a palace where the deceased General’s harem was kept; the current General has gifted it to the order in order to serve the people of the nearby village.  In addition to Sister Clodagh, four other nuns are sent to the school:  Sister Briony, Sister “Honey” Blanche (so named for her popularity), Sister Philippa, and Sister Ruth.  Each one is selected for a specific purpose:  Sister Briony is strong, Sister Honey is popular, Sister Philippa is a good gardener, and Sister Ruth is sick, and has a questionable commitment to the convent.  When they arrive at the palace, which they name the House of St. Faith, they are met by the elderly (and superstitious) caretaker, Ayah, and a local child, Joseph Anthony, who will act as a translator.  They also quickly come across Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the General’s agent who is supposed to act as a handyman.  The sisters are dismayed to find that the General has paid the villagers to come to the hospital and school, but Dean explains that eventually, this will stop, and the villagers will come on their own.  He also states his belief that the sisters will not last at the school, and will leave by the rainy season.  The sisters face an uphill battle:  the climate is extremely harsh, particularly on the cliff where the school is located, and the locals are superstitious.  Dean warns the sisters that if they treat one of the locals, and that person dies, the entire village will turn hostile.  Due to their numbers, the sisters also have trouble maintaining the building.  In an attempt to help, Dean brings them a girl from the village named Kanchi (Jean Simmons).  Kanchi has been causing trouble for her family with her wanton behavior, and they fear they will not be able to marry her off; she has also taken to hanging around Dean’s house, much to his annoyance.  Sister Clodagh takes Kanchi in, but when the General’s handsome young nephew (Sabu) comes to the school, she becomes very wary.

By Christmas, several of the nuns have started to have problems.  Sister Ruth, who is still intermittently sick, seems to have developed feelings for Dean, which Sister Clodagh notices; when confronted, Sister Ruth claims that Sister Clodagh is also attracted to Dean.  However, Sister Clodagh has started to have frequent memories of her life before becoming a nun, particularly of a lost love.  Sister Philippa is depressed, and in spring, it is discovered that instead of vegetables, she has planted flowers around the school; she eventually asks to leave the school.  Sister Briony and Sister Honey face trouble when a sick baby is brought into the hospital:  Sister Briony realizes that the child is beyond help, and refuses treatment, and sends the baby back home, but Sister Honey secretly gives his mother some medicine (castor oil).  When the baby dies shortly thereafter, the villagers abruptly stop coming to the school and hospital; the young General and Kanchi have also run away together.  Meanwhile, Sister Ruth’s behavior has become more and more erratic, which has been noticed by Sister Clodagh.  She voices her concerns to Dean, who advises her to leave the school and go back to the convent.  That same night, Sister Clodagh is walking through the building when she notices a light on in Sister Ruth’s room.  When she enters, Sister Ruth has traded her nun’s habit for a red dress, and has styled her hair and is wearing makeup.  She announces that she is leaving the Order immediately, but Sister Clodagh requests that she wait until morning, and volunteers to wait with her.  However, when Sister Clodagh falls asleep, Sister Ruth flees.  Sister Clodagh and the other nuns search the building, but cannot find the missing woman.  In fact, Sister Ruth has gone to Dean’s house, and announces that she loves him.  Dean rejects her, but can see that she is disturbed.  Sister Ruth then returns to the school and stalks Sister Clodagh; when Sister Clodagh goes out to the cliff edge to ring the school bell, Sister Ruth tries to push her over.  Sister Clodagh manages to hang onto the bell rope, and ultimately Sister Ruth loses her balance and falls to her death.  This proves to be the final straw for the nuns:  they pack up to return to the convent, abandoning the school and hospital.  As they leave, the rains begin.

MY TAKE:  This movie was actually banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, I would imagine because of the underlying sexual tension and the rather scandalous ending to the film.  Personally, I knew the first time I saw that cliff that somebody was going to go over it before the end of the movie.  When Sister Ruth flipped her lid, I figured it would be her, but I thought she would throw herself off it.  Actually, her madness is the most entertaining part of the movie, though the rest of it isn’t bad.  The building does seem to have a very strange, sinister effect on the people inside it, particularly the nuns.  With the exception of Sister Briony, all of them seem to experience some sort of mental trouble.  They also don’t seem to do a whole lot of teaching, other than to the young General, because they don’t speak the local language.  Instead, Joseph Anthony, who is only 6, is left to teach the students simple words in English.  Since the film is in color, it’s also rather shocking to see Sister Ruth out of her nun’s habit, in a very red dress (still with her nun shoes, though).  The same effect occurs in Sister Clodagh’s flashbacks, when you can see her very red hair.  Other than Sister Clodagh, the nuns are a little hard to tell apart, because their characters are not overly developed, and they don’t have too many distinguishing features in their nun’s habits.  However, this really doesn’t take away too much from the movie, since their names are usually mentioned when they appear (and there aren’t that many of them).  I think it’s a little outrageous that the head of the abbey expected five nuns to be able to set up and run a hospital and school by themselves:  just the size of the building would suggest that they would need a lot more help.  Ultimately, things do prove too much for them, and the project is abandoned, but it’s a good movie.

RATING:  Good; the ending is really good.

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