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M. Leary

Black Narcissus

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I can't find a dedicated thread for this film, so please ahem me if need be. Even beyond all the points that can be made about the technical aspects of the film as a Powell masterpiece, its political and historical context as an artifact of the demise of the Empire, etc... I am intrigued by the way that Powell portrays the "crisis of faith" as a movement from chastity and commitment to a mission of redemption towards a base, confused passion. Is it Powell's notion that the sex and violence towards which the film hurtles are simply the result of passion being loosed from its religious and cultural moorings? If so this is a fairly dire reading of religion, but one that has a thick tradition in the history of film. It brings to mind the famous scene in The Last Temptation of Christ in which naked lunatics dance around the Jordan. Scorsese explained this scene as demonstrating the similarity between orgiastic behavior and charismatic Christian worship.

I can't recall if this one has been batted around for the A&F 100, but it certainly is an important 20th century depiction of Christianity, even if that is a by-product of Powell's intentions.

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What I appreciate about Black Narcissus is that it is totally ambiguous in its intentions. It could be read either as a cautionary tale, of not thinking that you are holy enough to withstand temptation in an isolated environement, or, a dire polemic against religion.

I understand Scorcese is a fan of the film.

However, I do not see the connection between this and that infamous scene you referred to in _Last Temptation_. I know some people on this board liked the film, but I'm one of its detractors, and that scene in particular. There's not an ounce of reality in that scene, whatever Scorcese says.

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The only connection is that both films seem to make specific links between passion and spirituality, and I am thinking specifically of some excellent comments PTC made in the past about the LToC scene. Powell doesn't seem very ambiguous in this respect, as the film is so blatantly sexual in its undertones.

As far as Last Temptation... is concerned, I don't think Scorsese considers himself to be accurately portraying some point of history in this scene any more than Kazantzakis thought he was writing a book about the historical Jesus. I wasn't even aware that people questioned this. But that is a tangent for a different thread that we must have around here somewhere...

Edited by MLeary

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The only connection is that both films seem to make specific links between passion and spirituality, and I am thinking specifically of some excellent comments PTC made in the past about the LToC scene. Powell doesn't seem very ambiguous in this respect, as the film is so blatantly sexual in its undertones.

I can respect that, but the film is also ambiguous enough to show passion and spirituality as contrasts as well. In particular, the climactic sequence

where that one religious sister dons a red dress and lipstick! Horrors!

;)

As far as Last Temptation... is concerned, I don't think Scorsese considers himself to be accurately portraying some point of history in this scene any more than Kazantzakis thought he was writing a book about the historical Jesus. I wasn't even aware that people questioned this. But that is a tangent for a different thread that we must have around here somewhere...
I believe all detractors questioned that, even if they did not phrase it that way. If people believed that the movie was blasphemous, by logical deduction it also implies that the film was illogical. I can respect that Kazantzakis was using the story to ask pointed questions about the nature of divinity, but because his story did not hang together in a coherent fashion, (certainly not for me), his questions were lost in a sea of scenes where most of the characters were represented as pathetic, gullible, and/or extreme.

When that scene came on, I couldn't help but wonder: why? If I was a zealous believer who wished to go to John for a baptism, what would be the theological reasons why I should disrobe and jump up and down in unison, screeching at the top of my lungs? If I wanted to start a religious cult, why would I want people to do exactly that? Suppose I caught a co-worker at one of these "baptisms"--what would I say to him on Monday morning? (Hey Phil... caught ya at the Baptist's rally). I mean... it truly took me out of the story.

I think the discussion of the comparisons between eroticism and spirituality is a fascinating one, which has been linked together with Song of Solomon, and has been explored from artists as diverse as Powell and Pressburger, to Prince. The difference is, with Scorcese, he and Kazantzakis created a jarring scene out of thin air, not rooted in any reality of religious revival meeting that I have heard of, or rooting it in the reality of, say, a quasi-religious-sex cult, like David Koresh or "Children of God" movements in the 70s. I'd rather listen to Prince's _Lovesexy_ album.

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I think we had a thread on this back in the Novogate days. I'm a fan of the film myself, and FWIW, I found myself commenting on it in a post at my blog on The Dark Crystal, of all things.

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We have a couple different Powell-related threads here. Rather than launch yet another, I'm sticking this timely post here. Courtesy of Dave Kehr:

Turner Classic Movies has tapped into a trove of British quota quickies, which they

Edited by Christian

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A Greencine link to a review of Dreyer's Vampyr mentions that Black Narcissus was released in blu-ray early this year. Here's a review.

I don't much care about blu-ray, but I may have to rethink that. Powell/Pressburger movies may be the most beautiful films I've ever seen. It's exciting to think of how pristine they might look in blu-ray. I'd just have to get an HDTV set. And a new player. And then the DVDs.

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Oh that is sad, and deserves a thread of its own.

I didn't launch a separate thread, but I did blog -- much too briefly -- about a Red Shoes viewing inspired, in part, by Cardiff's death.

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Whoa! Thanks, e. It somehow hadn't registered for me that the film is based on a book, or, more likely, it registered during the credits but I quickly forgot about it. Thanks for the info.

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Watched this film with my wife tonight. She's an enormous fan of BLACK NARCISSUS. Me? I don't know. I'm absolutely a fan of Powell/Pressburger, and BLACK NARCISSUS is as beautiful as you could possibly want it to be, but BLACK NARCISSUS never hits that "sweet spot" for me.

That said, I'll say BLACK NARCISSUS has the outright creepiest madwoman I've ever seen committed to film. That terrible smile... :::shudders:::

Edited by Ryan H.

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Just finished this. Not much to say yet, but wanted to note given the earlier posts in this thread, that the Criterion DVD has a Scorsese and Powell commentary track, recorded back in the 80s for the laserdisc.

From reading Ryan's note, I think I liked it a good deal better than he.

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Took a few extra minutes after watching this one last night (on a wonderful Criterion transfer) to listen to the commentary track, mentioned above. A couple of things that jumped out immediately:

  • The entire film was shot in England, on soundstages or back lots. Impressive filmmaking, but mostly per Powell's recollection that they could have filmed either on location or at the studio, but they just wanted to try out the studio to see if they could pull it off.
  • The final scene was filmed to the musical score, not the other way around. They played piano tracks during the shoot so that Kerr and the others would know exactly how long they could walk from one cue to the next.
  • Big time Disney influences on the film--see the angles at the bell, and the vividness of the colors.
  • Scorcese and Powell were really into the eroticism of the film, particularly the decorations peering/leering over the nuns.

I liked the fact that the two nuns, Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth looked so similar. It brought a nice tension to their shared struggles, as they basically were two sides of the same coin. The fact that the introduction to the convent at Mopu was Ruth ringing the bell, and the finale at the convent was Clodagh ringing the bell is about as clear a piece of storytelling you can get. Is the film anti-faith? I think it is critical of a proud faith, as well as the dualistic tendencies ascetics can fall into. Seems a pretty common theme in the top 100, from Babette's Feast to Ordet and beyond. Of course the monastery was named St. Faith, and that plays a nice ironic line through the second and third acts, as shrouds blow off the former idols and whatnot.

Some really iconic and beautiful shots in the film, too, none more so than the high dolly shot overlooking the bell at the cliff's edge. Good flick.

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From David Thomson's piece on Technicolor, which also serves as a review of Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, comes this on Black Narcissus:

McCall’s film is wonderfully generous with its extracts, never more so than with Black Narcissus. This is a tricky film to judge now, in part because I don’t think Powell or his regular writer-producer, Emeric Pressburger, were very much interested in religion. And this is a story about a community of nuns in Tibet!

The crew was excited by the idea, especially if it meant getting away from England and going to the Himalayas. Oh, no, said Powell, we’ll do it all in the studio. What obsessed him far more than religion was the challenge to build sets, to paint on glass for perspectives, and to use color in a way that made the viewer believe the production had gone to Tibet. It was artifice that moved him; plus the notion of wondering about the sexual dreams of nuns, shrouded in ivory—yet eager to use crimson lipstick. With Alfred Junge as its production designer and Jack as cinematographer, Black Narcissus is one of the most ravishing films ever made (Cardiff won the Oscar for color photography). There are moments when the viewer is bound to ask, well, isn’t this just beauty or cinema for its own sake? But there must be young generations who have never experienced this use of color, movement, and melodrama. For a simple reason—a little more than ten years after Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, the world abandoned Technicolor for cooler processes, cheaper and supposedly truer to life. As if Powell and company hadn’t always preferred the imagination.

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