CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Michael Powell never hid the fact that he wasn’t especially church-going. So when he chose to make “Black Narcissus,” a film about a group of nuns attempting to establish an isolated convent in the Himalayas it might have initially seemed out-of-character. But then you hear that the nuns are driven to the brink of madness. Oh well, that’s different. That’s where the anti-clerical part kicks in. Except that it doesn’t. Whether he knew it or not, Powell was making an intensely religious film about Faith and what its limits may be.
There may be an initial bit of hubris of the part of the sisters’ order in christening the new convent “Saint Faith”–especially since it will be housed is a palace once used as a royal harem. The directing-writing team of Powell and Emric Pressburger, the set designer Alfred Junge and the cinematographer Jack Cardiff all go to great lengths in the opening minutes of the film to convince the audience that the future home of Saint Faith is a magical place. But is it black magic or white–therein lies the tale. The quintet of nuns assigned to tame its magic is led by Sister Clodagh–too young for the job, too haunted by past memories of dashed love and desertion and now trying desperately to over-compensate by being “more Catholic than the Pope.” This can be a dicey situation when “opening up a new territory” in which the natives are not properly prepared for a Clodagh. The local agent, Mister Dean–who may well be a stand-in for Powell himself–is far from impressed by Clodagh’s air of moral and institutional authority, pronouncing that he’ll give them until the rains break. An order of monks have already failed to tame the Palace of Mopu, now he’ll watch the sisters try and fail also.
The most spectacular failure will be that of the high-strung Sister Ruth who succumbs to unfulfilled desire for the virile Dean. Her conviction that Dean prefers the haughty Clodagh literally drives her mad and turns her homicidal. Clodagh’s own demon is her inability to become “the holy man, perched on a mountain peak above Mopu,” this even as she professes to Dean that far from being a contemplative order, she and her nuns are “very busy people.” The holy man has learned to turn away completely from the world–nothing in it can touch him. Whereas Clodagh is still haunted, not by Dean, but the lover who abandoned her in Ireland to seek his fortune in America. Would Clodagh have gone with him had he asked? Did he ask? Clodagh’s pride would not allow her to remain in a place where she would be the object of pity, of scorn–so she claims to have left that world for “a better place”–but did she? (Several decades later, Deborah Kerr, who played Sister Clodagh, would send up this situation hilariously in the James Bond spoof “Casino Royale.”) Sister Philippa, chosen for Mopu by her superior in Calcutta because of her skills as a gardener, neglects to plant vegetables because “the spirit of Mopu” seems to demand that she plant beautiful flowers rather than homely potatoes. She too confesses to Sister Clodagh that since their arrival at Mopu she has been troubled by thoughts that she hadn’t had for years. Another failed romance?
The remaining nuns, Sister Briony who will run the infirmary and Sister Honey who will assist Sister Ruth in teaching the children have less well-defined crises. Significantly, Sister Ruth complains that her students smell bad, while Sister Honey has nothing but love for them. In fact it is her sympathy and love for the children that undoes their work. Dean had earlier cautioned Sister Briony to turn away any cases that were incurable, lest the natives blame the sisters for the death. But when confronted by a desperate mother pleading for her sick infant, Sister Honey bypasses the strict Briony and gives the woman a small bottle of castor oil. She can’t bear to see the child suffering. But when it dies anyway, the natives are through with the sisters.
A sidebar to all of this is the fact that the nuns have agreed to take in a pretty beggar-girl, even though she doesn’t seem especially interested in anything that the Convent of Saint Faith has to offer, other than a brass censer-chain to use as a necklace. When she sets her cap for the prize pupil, their benefactor the Old General’s heir, the Young General, they run off together. When he returns in the closing moments of the film to apologize for his actions, Sister Clodagh can barely hide her contempt for him. In spite of the disasters she has witnessed–including her own attempted murder at the hand’s of the lapsed Sister Ruth–she has not yet learned the virtues of forgiveness and acceptance. The Mother Superior back in Calcutta was right–she wasn’t ready for the job. As the nuns make their way down from Mopu, the rains arrive. It seems that the crude, hedonistic Mr. Dean was right all along. The only mark that the sisters will leave of their short-lived tenancy will be Sister Philippa’s garden of flowers and a wooden crucifix set up in the courtyard.