Monday, June 07, 2010

Underrated Movie #74: Black Narcissus

Title: Black Narcissus
Year: 1948
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Writers: Powell and Pressburger, adapted from the novel by Rumer Godden
Stars: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons

The Story: An order of nuns takes over a former brothel on a remote mountaintop in the Himalayas and tries to civilize the natives. Instead, they are slowly driven mad by the “fresh air”.

How it Came to be Underrated: This is a beloved movie, so it’s a stretch to call it underrated, but Powell remains a criminally underrecognized director outside the hardcore-film-buff community. He should be as well known to the public as his most devoted fan, Martin Scorsese.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Most film buffs in my generation discovered this movie through the great documentary Visions of Light, which singled it out for having some of the best cinematography of all time, and indeed Jack Cardiff’s lush, otherworldly color pallatte and unnerving compositions make this a singularly intense experience, unlike anything else ever shot before or since, but it’s not just the look-- the total film is a masterpiece, including the script, direction and performances.
  2. The story could not be more shockingly irreverent: a bunch of racist nuns are destroyed by an erotic madness! (In a big budget movie from 1948??) But it also drives one thing home: If you’re writing an irreverent movie, then you’re writing a movie about reverence. Powell doesn’t approve of these women’s choice, but he performs an extraordinary feat of sympathy anyway. If you want to criticize someone’s world then you must learn to recreate their world, and to recreate their world you must understand them. Sure, they may change at the end, or maybe you just get your point of view across by poking holes in theirs-- what the movie “means” is defined by how it ends, but getting there requires that the writers must first totally sympathize with any world they want to criticize.
  3. What was it about Deborah Kerr? She looked and dressed like a very proper lady, but directors saw in her quivering eyes a deep longing for wildness. This was her ultimate showcase. Though her habit never budges, she packs even more fire into her eyes than all the heat she generated making out with Burt Lancaster in those crashing waves in From Here to Eternity.
  4. The film is both wildly ahead of its time and a product of it. The colonialism of the venture is unreservedly condemned, but the native Indians are still seen as primitive (for which they are both praised and criticized). Still, they have strong individual personalities and separate interior lives, which is a lot more than can be said of most “third world”-set movies of the time, even those that purported to be anti-imperialist.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Powell, Sabu, and producer Alexander Korda first teamed on a great adaptation of The Thief of Baghdad. Kerr got another chance to do creepy repressed eroticism in The Innocents.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a Criterion Collection DVD or you can Watch it Instantly on Netflix.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Incubi of Parallel X!

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