Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger / United Kingdom, 1947):

The theme is from Forster and I Know Where I’m Going!, worked out "at the back of the beyond" by The Archers at their most carnal-bonkers-sublime. The old harem known as "the House of Women" is perched on the edge of Himalayan precipices, turning it into "the House of St. Faith" is the mission accepted by the Irish Sister Superior (Deborah Kerr) and her Anglican order. Quite a challenge for sanctity: There are howling winds up above and drums in the bamboo jungle below, plus the hirsute thighs of the sardonic government agent (David Farrar) to erode the resolve behind the pale habits. The stony cloister with clogged-up plumbing, the bejeweled Little General (Sabu) and the wayward odalisque (Jean Simmons), the vegetable patch turned dazzling flower garden. "Either ignore it or give yourself up to it." Bresson in Les Anges du Péché examines the Occupation within a convent, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger here hint at the galvanic twitches of a dissolving empire. (The natives are paid to attend school, the skeletal holy man and the child translator with the knowing smile are old and new revolutionaries.) A tremendous studio incantation, Rumer Godden’s India as a trompe-l’oeil procession of painted mirrors and process shots, vast planes of artifice for a mind in upheaval. Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor photography maintains a Vermeer light frequently unsettled by violent Bonnard hues, softly fading to black only to cut to a screen filled with flaming peonies. The blur of rapture and dread is magnificently embodied by Kathleen Byron’s gaze of furious desire, her tormented nun donning scandalous reds for a foretaste of Hammer horror. Mallarmé’s bell-ringer and Murnau’s mysterious high angles for the climax, with consequences for Hitchcock. The fever breaks, but "I shall have my ghosts to remind me." A film not just of sights and sounds but of fragrances and tremors; down the road are loving shrines (Kundun, The Darjeeling Limited) and gleeful demolitions (Russell’s The Devils), and then there’s Roeg’s grand analysis in Walkabout. With Flora Robson, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse, Esmond Knight, May Hallatt, Eddie Whale Jr., Shaun Noble, and Nancy Roberts.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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