...Cray-Cray "Sorry 'Bout That Nun Movie"
Few things are more inspiring than crazy nuns hangin’ out in the Himalaya Mountains. Think spooky wind chimes. A treacherous cliff. And these pious ladies gotta transform an ex-harem into a reputable, good-for-the-soul convent (in their case, a school and hospital). Think this spells disaster? You’re right.
“Black Narcissus” from 1947 is an oldie flick with a badass reputation, both in the world at large and in my own home. For starters, refer back to my “25 Favorite Films” post from January 10, 2016. I put “Black Narcissus” as #19. Impressive. Out of all the hundreds (probably thousands) of movies I have seen in my life, “Black Narcissus” ranks near the top. I describe it as a “Deborah Kerr tour de force that leaves you breathless… an insightful ‘nuns on the edge’ story full of emotional depth and stunning cinematography.”
Acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, known for making such badass true crime flicks as “Goodfellas” (1990) and “The Departed” (2006) is even surprisingly a fan, famously calling “Black Narcissus” “…a cross between Disney and a horror film.” Dude, he even serves as commentator on The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray! We’re talkin’ L-O-V-E. And “Black Narcissus” directors Powell and Pressburger, known for making such magical, imaginative British classics as “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943) and “The Red Shoes" (1948) called “Black Narcissus” the most “erotic” film they ever made. Erotic? Nuns? 1947? Yup. Have I sufficiently piqued your interest? Now there will be no spoilers in this film review, or even a modest plot summary. Rather, I write this post as a WARNING. Pure and simple. For first-time “Narcissus” viewers, I recommend watching this movie alone, at home, and in the fall or winter months. My favorite month to watch it is October, to build on that whole “kinda scary, but kinda cute akin to Halloween” vibe that October is always good for. But, and I say this with ALL seriousness, do not attempt to watch this movie with friends and family. Unless you’ve got a total “classic film” diehard like myself roaming about your social circle, in desperate need of a dusty ol’ jolt from a disturbed nun called Sister Ruth, don’t share this film with anyone. Harsh words. But I’ll explain. “Black Narcissus” requires a lot from its viewers. It asks you to dive deep into lush vibrant worlds of India, but painted in light brushstrokes. And European flashbacks that sparkle with possibility, but whose door opens into nothing. Whistling. Black. The effect is chilling. Sidebar, “Black Narcissus” has my FAVORITE flashback scenes ever. If there is an Academy Award for “Best Flashbacks” in a movie, man, “Black Narcissus” has my vote. Four flashback scenes. Each magical, provoking. This movie’s “time travel” reigns supreme.
There’s also a hunky British ex-pat who stops by the convent to fix the plumbing, warn the ladies about Darjeeling tummy sickness, and, oh yeah, stimulate their lustful thoughts and forebodings. Then, a beautiful jewel-laden Indian general arrives. His original mission is book learning, but his final mission “strays from the page,” thanks to Indian servant girl Kanchi. CRAZY TOWN? You bet.
This movie is HEAVY. You’re transported to a time, place, and emotional realm (not too dramatic a description?) that might be absolutely ravishing for a dedicated cinephile. And jokes aside, as the term "crazy nuns" is not one I like to use or advocate using (I only use it as I once read an article introducing this film as such), “Black Narcissus” is skillful in conveying the humanness of the religious community (nuns). They’re still people just like us, who have joys and struggles, fears and insecurities. Some might even unfortunately have mental illness. Still, it’s an old movie with alien visuals for twenty-first century movie goers. Even though “Black Narcissus” did win “Best Cinematography” and “Best Art Direction” Oscars in 1948, some modern viewers might not respond to its visuals. Ol' "Narci” is also extremely soulful, but this soulful tension builds slowly. By the time Sister Clodagh finally discloses the break-up with her European love from many years earlier (which resulted in her sad decision to become a nun), my heart is pounding in empathy for her. I got you, sista’. I feel your pain. Still, with slow pacing, whether working for the story or not (which I think it does), some viewers might opt out. Press pause. Let me fix dessert. Put on a cup of tea.
Now the last twenty minutes of “Narcissus?” Well, howdy “Disney and horror film” as mentioned by Mr. Scorsese. The finale leaves you scurrying on your couch for a blanket. A comfort blanket to counter all that on-screen nunny mayhem. YOWZA. These nuns are “off and running,” quite literally. The bell has been rung, again, quite literally. It’s every nun for herself. For me, it was riveting to watch. For my family members? Well, they haven’t let me live it down. All I can sheepishly say is, “Uh, sorry ‘bout that nun movie.” I was subsequently banned, for quite some time, from participating in our regular Saturday night “movie picks.” (Okay, maybe I’m just being paranoid here.)
Hence, I give “Black Narcissus” a beyond enthusiastic “two thumbs up.” But I also issue that warning. As a lover of this movie, who indeed watched it for the first time alone, at home, and during the winter (primo viewing experience), I felt strongly compelled afterward to share this classic treasure with my family. But, resist the collective re-watch, my friends. The urge to convert your loved ones. Some things, like a remote Himalayan convent, are better left alone. “Wa…hoooooo!!!!” That’s my attempt to recreate that “erotic” whistling wind. Brilliant stuff, “Black Narcissus.” Just brilliant.
This post is dedicated to Wendy and Toni Ann. What can I say except... "Sorry 'bout that nun movie."