DirectorMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Release Date(s)1947 (July 24, 2010)
Studio(s)Janus Films (Criterion - Spine #93)
Set in India, high atop the Himalayan mountains, is a story about a small order of nuns who are assigned the task of taking over the empty building stationed there and converting it into a convent for the surrounding natives. However, their difficulties begin almost immediately as ever-increasing feelings of disillusionment, paranoia and madness begin to creep into their minds. As they struggle to maintain order, their faith is called into question and their will to survive is put to the test.
Roundly considered in the film community to be one of the most beautiful-looking films ever made, the true power of Black Narcissus lies not just within its plot, but in its underlying theme of sexuality. It may not be apparent, but in 1947, subject matter that delved into the spirit battling the sins of the flesh, particularly with such definitive imagery, was a bit of a taboo. Deemed obscene in the eyes of the Catholic church, it alternatively struck a chord with the movie-going public and with critics. Filmed entirely (and unbelievably) at Pinewood Studios in London by the Powell and Pressburger players, the story is ultimately about self-reflection and renewed faith of not just the mind, but more importantly, the soul.
This is also another of Criterion’s great masterpiece releases (would you expect anything less?). The magnificent presentation is just as staggering as it must have been when projected over fifty years ago. Jack Cardiff’s award-winning cinematography is a thing of true beauty. Even the matte paintings seem to leap to life while the color palette, consisting of strong greens, reds, and whites, is just as lush as one could hope for. There is a considerable amount of film grain, but not so much that it’s distracting. It gives the film more character, and also leaves more visual information intact. Many that criticized Criterion’s previous release for its extreme amount of edge enhancement can rest easy. You will find none of that here. On the audio side of things, the original uncompressed mono soundtrack has now been included with this release, completing a fantastic sensory experience. There are also subtitles in English for those who need them.
In the supplement department, there’s a decent amount of material to look through. Beginning with a video introduction to the film by filmmaker and close friend of Michael Powell, Bertrand Tavernier, an audio commentary featuring Powell and Martin Scorsese has also been included. The Audacious Adventurer, featuring Tavernier again chatting about the film and his friend Powell, Profile of “Black Narcissus”, a nice documentary on the making of the film, Painting with Light, another documentary that discusses Cardiff’s work, the original theatrical trailer and a 21 page booklet featuring an essay by critic Kent Jones.
One of the many Powell/Pressburger visual feasts that manages to maintain interesting themes within an intriguing story, Black Narcissus falls right in line. It’s a marvelous work in the succession of everything that came before and after it, and also raised the bar very highly for filmmaking in general. Now with this pristine and wonderful package from The Criterion Collection, this masterpiece can be experienced at its best.
- Tim Salmons