This classic, brilliantly colorful film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger follows five nuns, led by Sister Clodagh, into the Himalayas to start a hospital and school for the local villagers. The battle against the elements and the local culture proves to be a formidable one, though Sister Clodagh’s most difficult tasks comes from within—through the envious Sister Ruth and Clodagh’s own struggle with her calling and commitment.
The film’s location plays an integral role in the overall thematic arc as a battle between competing worlds. Clodagh struggles to reconcile her pastoral memory of the past with the stony heights of her present. The nuns struggle to bring their English Christianity to bear on the lives of the Himalayan villagers. Powell and Pressberger’s stunning use of color helps to underline these dualities, providing a consistent stream of beautiful images both natural and unnatural, lush and rough, pitting worlds against one another in a visual sense. These formal elements serve as fine complements to the narrative of the film, which follows the nuns as they navigate their way between their competing worlds.
Beyond the exploration of these opposing realms, the film also serves as a meditation on the Incarnation, particularly in the notion of Christ’s descent from heaven to earth, His taking on of human flesh, and His service among humanity. The crucifix finds its way into shots repeatedly—appropriate for a nunnery to be sure, but also drawing the viewer to reflect on the intersection of this narrative with the life of Jesus. Black Narcissus is no allegory, but its theological echoes are undeniable.