Black Narcissus (1947, Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger): Though Deborah Kerr has top billing, the real star of Black Narcissus is the Technicolor cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who passed away earlier this year. For a film that came out right after the war, the lush colours and exotic locale must have been like a drug to a war-weary world. Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, the leader of a small group of nuns who have been sent to the Himalayas to establish a convent school on the site of a former palace that was used to house a previoius owner’s concubines. The exotic setting seems to create tensions in the women, pulling them away from their religious devotion toward the more sensual pleasures of the exotic world they’re inhabiting.
The plot is melodramatic, but the images are always strikingly composed. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so much considering England’s post-war austerity), the whole thing was shot at Pinewood Studios, with some wonderful set design and matte paintings filling in for real mountains. Both art director Alfred Junge and cinematographer Cardiff won Academy Awards for the film.
I will confess that I’m baffled at all the references I’ve seen to these nuns as Protestant or “Anglo-Catholic”. Their order is named for the Virgin Mary and although they renew their vows yearly, which is unusual, there was nothing remotely Protestant about their religious practice, nor did I hear any clarifying reference in the dialogue. Perhaps it is made clear in the novel (by Rumer Godden) upon which the film is based.