Thoughts On: Black Narcissus (1947)
A group of nuns face psychological conflicts in their new Himalayan convent.
Black Narcissus is a slow burning thriller and a compelling exploration of self-censorship–both in terms of behaviour and thought. In such, this narrative sees a group of nuns move into a ‘palace’ in the Himalayas, one which will now serve as their new convent. Once here they are told of a group of brothers who also tried to spread their religious teachings to the village surrounding the palace, but quickly failed, upped and left. What’s more, this ‘palace’ used to be one ‘of women’ – the sultry implication being quite transparent. And this reflects itself through the village people, who are somewhat calloused, yet hard working and seemingly happy as free and undevout figures. When dropped into this area, the group of nuns are stunted by both their freedom and isolation. And, as in The Shining, isolation isn’t always so good for people.
Before delving into this, I’ll say that the pacing of this film isn’t great. But, the worst elements of this narrative are the rigid performances and dialogue. This stiffens the complex characterisation of the main figures, cheapens the minor characters and drags out the run-time quite a bit. On an upside, the set-design, special effects and cinematography in this film are quite impressive despite being dated – which solidifies Black Narcissus as a lasting classic. The most intriguing aspect of this film, however, is the subtext of the story – and this is what we’ll continue to explore.
So, left with their own thoughts and overwhelming clarity – as represented by the mountainous landscape – it becomes obvious that these nuns think and act as they do with a lot of aid from their now lost surroundings: a church full of other sisters. It then becomes an inevitability that the sisters will either become like the uncle of the man who sent for them, a man who simply meditates on the mountain, day and night, or become like Mr. Dean, an impulsive and loose English man who lives on the mountain. This is all reinforced and embellished by the metaphorical title, Black Narcissus.
Narcissus is of course a flower also known as a Daffodil and a myth that follows a beautiful man who stared at his own reflection, fell in love with himself, and eventually died having never stopped staring. The relation of this to this narrative is on the grounds of the self-reflection that the nuns have to endure. In such, they think themselves pious and pure – or, at least, if they act in the way they are taught, they can be. When they have to stare this characteristic in the face, there comes conflict; they are almost transfixed by their own identity and the questions it poses. What adds complexity to this title and narrative is the idea of a Black Narcissus. Black of course implies darkness and a Black Narcissus is also a kind of flower. However, in terms of the metaphor, this black, this darkness, implies a void within the Narcissus – the nuns. This void allows them to peer into their pasts and into their deeper emotions that they restrain and hold back. And such drives the conflict of this film.
Black Narcissus then seems to be a tale that, in certain senses, critiques religious thought patterns. We see this through the fact that the nuns’ convent is not a success and that they have to escape from the mountain having failed to acclimatise. This lack of adaptation may, and has, been interpreted as a colonialist theme; one that comments on India’s recent independence from Britain in 1947. However, when looking at the narrative from the characters’ perspectives, which is undeniably the focus, it becomes much more obvious that the lack of adaptation seen in this narrative says more about the beliefs of these nuns. After all, Mr. Dean, a British man, lives in the village and stays there after the nuns leave. The idea of a Black Narcissus, a compelling void, then comments on the nuns’ inability to hold onto their beliefs out of the context of a church – and without the authority of superiors.
This stretches beyond a simple critique of religion, however, when we consider that the idea of adaptation is central to the narrative. In such, the commentary provided by this narrative is that the Black Narcissus, he or she who is compelled by their own inner complex, cannot, or at least finds it hard to, adapt to worlds that do not reflect outwardly who they want to be within. And in this respect, I think the vast majority of people are ‘The Black Narcissus’ to a certain to degree; we all find it hard to change and be put in situations or contexts that seem indifferent to ourselves (which maybe validates the interpretation of a colonial critique in this narrative). The impulsive, the ignorant and the entirely sheltered seem to be able to adapt as they either keep their darkness, the void within them, locked away, or entirely exposed to, and reflective of, their surroundings. Those who mediate between the two extremes find this adaptation difficult and are ultimately left yearning for some kind of stability or a replication of the past.
To conclude, it is this complex assessment of belief systems and senses of self that make Black Narcissus such an intriguing film. So, have you seen this movie? What are your thoughts on how these ideas further comment on people through this narrative?
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