Here’s a little known fact about me: I’m a sucker for stories about nuns. Also private schools (The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman leaps to mind here), isolated locations like islands (The Weight of Water) or hotels in the middle of nowhere (1222), mountain climbers (North Face) or campers (The Bear), and the military (most recently, We Band of Angels, which combines an island and the military — awesome!).
While this may seem like a disparate group of interests, they actually have something important in common: they’re all about people in closed communities, frequently people who have been exiled or have exiled themselves, usually in an attempt to improve their lives in some way, only to find the containment itself a formidable force for or against change (depending on the change).
(Containment is also occasionally also a formidable force against zombies, incidentally, but it doesn’t always work out consistently so I wouldn’t rely on it when the apocalypse comes, if I were you.)
This movie is one I watched about two months ago with my mom — also a big fan the nun yarn genre. I went into it not having a clue what it was about (“It’s about nuns,” my mom said. “Sign me up,” I replied), aside from the fact it starred Deborah Kerr, star of another nun movie I have long loved, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (about a young nun (Kerr) stranded on an island (yay!) with a handsome, gruff Marine (Robert “Humina Humina” Mitchum) during WWII).
Kerr is excellent at playing uptight, regimented ladies who encounter males of quite the other personality type and are loosened up a bit by their experiences with them. She is, in fact, kind of the queen of that. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly the role she plays in Black Narcissus. I love it when a typecasting comes together!
Based on a novel by Rumer Godden, which I aim to read soon, this is a psychological drama about a group of nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Kerr), sent to live in an extremely isolated castle of sorts on the top of a very windy mountain in the Himalayas. The plan? To serve the Indian community below by establishing both a school and a medical clinic.
For Sister Clodagh, the assignment is a chance to show off to her Mother Superior just how strong a servant of God she has become. It’s the first time she’ll be in charge, for one thing, and both the isolation and the culture shock should thoroughly test her faith as well. Little does she realize just how tested she is about to be, not to mention which culture is actually going to be the most shocking of the bunch.
The first person she meets when she arrives, you see, is the local British agent, a man named Mr. Dean, who is about as opposite of Sister C as one could get. Contrasted to the nun’s full-coverage, big fluffy pristine-white habit, Mr. Dean is usually wearing sleeveless shirts and ridiculously short shorts (think Viggo Mortensen in G.I. Jane), looking rather more like a wild man than a British official. And, in fact, his time in the Himalayas has turned him into just that — he’s laid back to the point of apathy, a heavy drinker, and utterly devoid of manners.
So, naturally, the two opposites attract almost immediately, much as they are equally loathe to admit it.
Meanwhile, there’s a second romantic subplot dealing with opposites of another variety — a young, wealthy prince and the peasant girl he falls hard for. All set against a backdrop of contrasting warm colors and chill winds.
Throughout the film flows a steadily increasing undercurrent of sensuality, which has to have been quite a shocker for audiences in 1947 (nuns and sex?! *clutches pearls*). Aside from the budding attractions between characters, the castle itself is a former brothel, complete with semi-lewd (full-on-lewd for 1947, I imagine) murals painted on the walls. There are also a number of flashbacks about the incident that led Sister C. to the church in the first place — the painful spurning of a lover she has never fully recovered from.
For extra fun, about 34ths of the way through the film it turns from psychological drama to freaky, freaky horror flick, when one of the sisters, jealous of Mr. Dean’s attention to Sister C., comes utterly unglued. We know she’s come utterly unglued, by the way, because her eyes go wide and crazy and she does things like PUT ON RED LIPSTICK. You know, plus she tries to throw Sister C. off a cliff — always a good indicator there may be some mental health issues at play.
Though for modern audiences used to HD resolutions, the movie doesn’t appear to be anything “all that” visually, it was actually quite amazing for its time, I gather, shot in technicolor, with color used to clever effect. As I mentioned before, the nuns are all in giant bright-white habits, while the locals are all clad in vibrant colors (the locals who are important to the story, anyway — the extras are all in drab earth tones so they blend into the background more as extras should). Wind is another major motif — the castle is plagued by gusts at all times, blowing curtains, blowing objects, blowing nuns. Winds of change, winds of destiny, winds of . . . windiness.
The story is engaging and entertaining enough, though movies from the 40s tend, from my perspective, to lean heavily on exaggerated, cheesy acting and dialogue, and this one suffers from that affliction. But it’s a stunning picture in variety of other ways, and, you know, it’s about nuns on a mountain top — few stories could be more perfectly engineered for my tastes.
Recommended, though if you haven’t seen Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, rent that one first because it’s delicious!
Cast: Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, David Farrar, Sabu, Esmond Knight, Kathleen Byron