Customer Reviews: Black Narcissus (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
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VINE VOICEon October 15, 2005
This stunning and atmospheric film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who were the team behind Archer Productions, is an engrossing and moody masterpiece one might term, religious noir. It was shot in lush colors by Jack Cardiff with a score by Brian Easdale performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. It is the story and the atmosphere created by Powell and Pressburger that gives this adaptation of a novel by Rumer Gooden its noirish feel, however, and it would easily be just as good in black and white.

Deborah Kerr is Sister Clodagh, fullfilling her duties at the Servants of Mary in Calcutta. She is assigned to helm St. Faith, high in the Himalayas, and is given the charge of Mother Superior in order to do so. She will be the youngest ever to hold such a position, and it is one her Mother Superior believes she is not ready for. Once she reaches the lonely place over nine thousand feet from the earth, with her small group of Sisters, she will discover that while they may be in closer proximity to the heavens, they will be much further from God.

The isolation, the drums, and the wind, will have an effect on each of the Sisters, including Sister Clodagh. She is strict and demanding, but becomes concious of the danger here when she herself begins to drift and dream of her past in Ireland before joining the Servants of Mary. Kerr has a graceful Irish beauty that is almost stunning in these flashback scenes. She was young and happy, and in love. She was from a small area and did not want to be shamed when the one she had given her love to decided to move on without her. Her decision was born out of her desire to avoid humiliation.

An older Sister will also find herself recalling a past she had thought forgotten, and no amount of hard work can keep her mind from it. It is the outside element of Mr. Dean (David Farrar) that will set in motion the biggest change, however, as the already unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), young and quite beautiful, is driven by repressed passion and jealousy to utter madness. She becomes jealous of Sister Clodagh, whom she believes wants the attention of Mr. Dean. Sister Clodagh, who originally found Mr. Dean to be objectionable when sober, and an abomination when drunk, begins to finally soften, and even goes so far as to confide in him her fears about what is happening to all of them.

Farrar is excellent as the somewhat irreverent womanizer who knows how to push Sister Clodagh's buttons. There is one scene where he is drunk and sings of how he cannot be a nun that infuriates Sister Clodagh and worries her at the same time. Sabu is also excellent as the young General who sends the children there to learn and is just as eager to do so himself. Jean Simmons shines as the exotic and sensual Kanchi. She is brought there by Mr. Dean for the Sisters to "tame" but her wild and earthy spirit will seduce the General and he will run off with her for a time. Simmons' dance sequence may be famous, but it is the scene between Kanchi and the General, where he refuses to beat her for stealing a necklace, which holds the most tension, and is charged with passion.

Kathleen Byron's performane as the unbalanced Sister Ruth is unforgettable. The elements she is exposed to, from the remote isolation of St. Faith, to the charming scoundrel Mr. Dean, will turn her already precarious mental state into true insanity. She will expand the tiny bit of attention shown her by Mr. Dean into a desire so intense, her fragile grip on reality will slip away. She orders a deep burgandy colored dress and makes the decision to leave the other Sisters. Once spurned she will return, with a fever of madness behind her eyes the viewer can actually see. Byron's scene in the doorway on the cloister, high on the mountains, as Sister Clodagh rings the bell Ruth had been so fond of, is unsettling.

Sister Clodagh will come to terms with the fact that we are all human, even herself, and will begin to learn humility. She will take a lesser post elsewhere and bid farewell to Mr. Dean, asking only one favor of him as she leaves. It is a request filled with sadness, as it is obvious to her now that they should not have come here, despite the fact it has made her grow personally, and given her a better understanding of human nature, and human weakness.

This is a very unusual film with an exciting and memorable conclusion. It will intoxicate the viewer with its mood, like the scent of the flower after which this film was named. A must see film.
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on September 21, 2005
I am not sure why the poster believes the film is missing a scene. I have the Criterion edition, and I have just watched the scene. It starts about 43 minutes into the film, and it involves the beggar girl looking at wall art, dancing, and trying to seduce the young General. In the commentary, Michael Powell says, in reference to the girl's dance: "When Larry Olivier saw this... he couldn't believe it. His Ophelia [from 'Hamlet' in 1948] changed into this..." I've posted snapshots from the film of this scene in the Criterion version.

There is one minor error in the Criterion and previous versions of the film that have been released. When Sister Ruth sees red and passes out, the screen goes to blue instead of black. This is most likely the result of some electronic sampler that thought "black" meant "no signal", and as VCRs will do, switched the screen to blue.

This film is excellent and Jack Cardiff was a genius. It rightly won the Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration in 1947.
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on October 17, 2000
One of the best British films ever made is this pioneering effort by independent filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Shot entirely in Scotland with painted matte backgrounds to recreate the Himalayas (and astonishingly well at that), the film is superbly textured and mature, thematically ahead of any movie made in its period. Deborah Kerr heads a superb group of performers as the Mother Superior of a group of nuns who move to a convent in a remote mountain village in India, only to find that their confidence and strength in their religion is no match for the mystic powers of the East. Sexual frustration over local white man David Farrar, weakening faith, harsh climate and the growing fondness for their homeland soon get to the women and they are forced to leave or die. Interestingly enough, Kerr's flashback scenes of her Scottish youth and teenage sweetheart were cut by American censors upon first release, even though they were completely without sexual content, explicit or implicit; it seems it was too taboo to show a nun who has taken her vows to escape a failed love affair (the scenes have since been restored and are now available on home video). Funny, the nun who throws herself off a mountain because she goes bug-eyed every time she sees Farrar in his shorts didn't even make the Prude Alert blink.
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on March 30, 2000
From the same team that gave us THE RED SHOES this film is a must see for those who appreciate a great story fleshed out by terrific performances in lush settings with phenomenal art direction. Made over fifty years ago BLACK NARCISSUS could be considered significantly ahead of its time in its unique use of narration, and subject. (Hint: What happens when a group of British nuns is sent from their cloistered priory to establish an infirmary/school in a palace formerly inhabited by a sultan's harem located high in the Himalayas? Watch and find out.) Atmospheric and hypnotic (shot in truly glorious technicolor), this is a movie you'll want to watch many times. Definitely one of a kind. Deborah Kerr is outstanding as Head Sister Clodagh. (With Sabu and a very young Jean Simmons in supporting roles.)
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on January 3, 2002
Black Narcissus stands as a peak film in the career of Michael Powell and Emerich Pressburger. A flawless script centered on the personal experiences of a group of nuns that live in the Himalayas. The beauty of the place, the beauty of Nature all soon start to have a strange effect on those women. This is a movie about the conflicts between spirit and flesh. And what a film!
On top of it we have a impecable cast and what I believe to be the best cinematography work I have ever experienced - courtesy of the great Mr. Jack Cardiff. The cinematography IS BREATHTAKING. As breathtaking as nothing I have ever seen on the technicolor days.
I disagree with one reviewer who complained that Criterion Collection failed to bring us this film just because the aspect ratio was 1.33:1 (instead of a widescreen version). I strongly disagree with that idea and I must recall that Black Narcissus was made in 1947. At that time films had the 1.33:1 ratio. Widescreen only came up in the early 50's. It happeened that later on, some films had a fake-widescreen effect just for re-release purposes. Black Narcissus was filmed using a technicolor process involving 3 negatives and its correct aspect ratio was 1.33:1.
Criterion's edition of Black Narcissus is a gem. A great buy. You will never see anything like this again!
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on January 3, 2004
The Criterion DVD edition of "Black Narcissus" brings out the most brilliant aspects of the film, a brightness and splendor that makes the drab Order of Mary nuns re-think a few things. The magnificent & exotic locale, high in the Himalayas, as well as clashing cultures trying to meld, make this a most absorbing experience. Okay, the nuns take a castle in the mountains to teach the locals. That's all I'll tell of the plot. The psychological experiences of each nun are vividly portrayed, as well as the intrusion of a local girl and an Indian prince. A very mystic atmosphere pervades, and the nuns start thinking mundane thoughts. Ah! The mystery of the mountains! It's a bit of a downer to find out that you're not seeing the Himalayas in their splendor; rather, all was filmed on a stage in England. The Oscar-winning art direction and cinematography are totally responsible for creating this wonderfully mysterious place. The Criterion version preserves the phenomenal photography, with colors clashing against each other, creating a visual display of the confusion those poor nuns were facing. Indeed, they all changed, in one way or another. Clear and crisp, you can see every facial wrinkle and every minute detail of costumes and jewelry. A fine achievement. Shadows against sunlight, and brilliant color...quite lovely. It's fun to see a post-adolescent Sabu, though here he plays a fancy young guy and looks uncomfortable, considering his greatest fame came wearing a much more comfortable loincloth. The rest of the acting is excellent, without exception. Deborah Kerr, in one of her first big roles, is commanding, as well as Kathleen Byron, Flora Robson, David Farrar, and an amazing performance by a 17-year old Jean Simmons, as a little Indian tart. I was most taken with the performance of May Hallatt as the crazy caretaker of the palace, who really put a lot in perspective. It's impressive that director Powell and writer Pressburger were in such close collaboration that they took equal credit for everything. As the liner notes tell, England was slow to recover after WW II, and watching the English nuns leave the most spiritual surroundings somehow suggest that the English had no business in India. They didn't understand their surroundings. Interesting. (David Lean's wonderful "A Passage to India" had a similar message). There is a cleansing rainstorm as the nuns leave, which suggests that life will go on, as usual, though the look on Farrar's face at the end is less than hopeful. My favorite moment is when May Hallatt finds out a bunch of "ladies" will be coming, expecting the old days of the harems. Imagine her surprise when she gets a bunch of nuns. If you haven't seen this film already, prepare yourself for a truly visual treat. Young filmmakers should see this, to learn about plot/character development, real conflict & resolution. I'm glad to own it.I
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on November 25, 2008
I own this UK import. The movie itself is region free and does indeed work on North American Blu-Ray players; however, the featurette "A Profile of Black Narcissus" is presented in standard-def PAL (on the same BR disc as the HD feature), and is not playable on most US BR machines.

So, if you are only interested in the main feature (which does like quite nice in HD) and don't mind being somewhat ripped off in the extra features department, go for it. It wouldn't surprise me to see Criterion eventually release a Region A Blu-Ray edition of this stateside, however.
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on April 27, 2000
When we think of British films of the 1940s we usually think of either terribly stiff-upper-lipped gents on warships being stoical (while Richard Attenborough panics in the boiler room) or disappointingly unfunny comedies starring Alec Guinness. Powell and Pressburger were different, though.
For a start, they favoured lurid technicolor over sober black and white, plus nearly all their films have an alarming cosmopolitanism. Their attitude to Britain and British life is a mixture of affection and sharp satire, and emotions tend not to be repressed, they bubble over with startling violence. Powell, who was English in a fairly weird way, did most of the directing, Pressburger, who was Hungarian, most of the writing, and they were co-producers. The result is an exhilarating blend of almost Elizabethan exuberance and East European intelligence.
Black Narcissus is about a bunch of English nuns trying to bring Christianity to India. Gradually they start to go native; the heat, the heathenism and the sexy local administrator conspire to send the steam up their wimples. The whole ensemble cast is wondeful, and Deborah Kerr is on fine form as the mother superior, but the really startling performance is Kathleen Byron's. Byron is amazing as the sickly, irritable nun who goes totally loo-lah from sexual repression and ends up chucking in her habit for a low-cut dress. Her beautifully observed shift from tight-lipped anger to sweaty lust to hollow-eyed psychosis is easily one of the most brilliant performances in any film made before, oh, 1970 or so. It's a tragedy that Byron (one of the best, not to mention one of the most beautiful actresses of her generation) never got work as good as this again.
A weird, sexy, alarming film. Scorsese is a huge Powell fan; there's a little bit of Kathleen Byron in Travis Bickle. Wonderful stuff.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon September 30, 2010
Hi I'm Lou, I hope you find my video review of the blu-ray Criterion edition of "Black Narcissus" helpful.
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on October 25, 2003
Not only is this the most erotic British film ever made... it is one of the most erotic films ever and in terms of understanding what IS erotic, is a pre-eminent example of 'less is more'. It has been remarked about some famous religious art works that there appears to be a conjunction between the face in a moment of religious ecstasy and the face in a moment of sexual ecstasy. Mr Powell and Mr Pressburger understood that entirely and made a feast of it. Just to consider the use of red: blushing nuns, red flowers, blood on a white habit, cherry lipstick, magenta dress, ruby shoes, a maroon compact... Combine this with the pulsating drums, everpresent wind, the oiled bodies of the "natives" and images of a booted foot hovering near the prostrate body of one of the nuns and you have a film of extraordinary sexual power. Never have the bare legs of a male, from just above the knees down, looked so provocative as they do in this film. But this is just part of this magnificent work. To own.
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