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Back stage

God works in strange ways
By Staff Writer Mon 31 Aug 2015, 21:44 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Back stage

Black Narcissus (1947) is showing on Tuesday January 22, 2013 only, at the Gaborone Film Society at 7 pm in the A/V Centre at Maru a Pula School.

It is part of a series of four films that will show in January honouring the cinematic splendour created by Michael Powell (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902-1988) in their movies made during and after the end of World War II by their company, The Archers (1942-1957).  They include: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus (1947); and The Red Shoes (1948). Powell began directing films in 1927 when he was 22-years-old.  His partnership with Emeric Pressburger was forged in 1942 (Emeric is not to be confused with his older brother Arnold who began producing movies in 1930).  Rarely has a team like theirs been consistently able to make great films.  Now over 66 years later, they still impress and are exciting movies to watch.  More amazing is what they were able to capture with the camera and the brush long before the age of digital imagery. 

Black Narcissus is currently being shown in New York City and elsewhere around the world as part of the recognition of this great classical work of cinematic art.The script by the writer and director team of Powell and Pressburger is based on the English writer, who grew up in colonial India and wrote from there and Scotland, Margaret Rumer Godden's novel, Black Narcissus (1939).  It provides the framework for this sensual and impressive movie, which explores cultural conflict, attraction and love, obsessive, revealed and unrequited.The film opens in Calcutta at the Anglican Order of the Servants of Mary with Mother Superior Dorothea (acted by Nancy Roberts) telling Sister Clodagh (played by Deborah Kerr) that she has been selected to lead a small group of nuns into the Himalayan Mountains beyond Darjeeling to the Palace of Mopu.  The palace has been donated by the Old General (Esmond Knight) to the Sisters so that they can open a school and hospital. An order of Brothers tried and failed to survive at Mopu.

The palace had previously been a harem.  Its caretaker is the wild and fanciful Angu Ayah (May Hallat) who moves through the great rooms in full possession of her domain. Sister Clodagh is provided with four fellow nuns to help her run the convent.  Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson) who has a green thumb and will be responsible for the gardens, the mature and experienced Sister Briony (Judith Furse) who will care for the sick, the young outgoing Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) will supervise meals; and the unstable and often ill Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is with them to learn her vocation. As Mother Superior instructs: "We are an order of workers - work them hard". What was a house of women is to be turned into a house of faith.

Mister Dean (David Farrar), the Anglo-Indian estate agent, takes the sisters to the palace high on a mountainside where the wind blows incessantly, overlooking his green valley below.  He is available to be of assistance when required.  He asks the nuns to talk to him, not to preach to him. 

He brings as their translator Joseph Anthony or simply Young Interpreter (Eddie Whaley Jr) who is fluent in English and thinks he is between six and 11-years-old. Soon the son of the owner, Dilip Rai, the Young General (acted by Sabu), arrives wanting to be a student.  It is he who wears the Black Narcissus perfume from an Army-Navy store in London.   Then the seductive orphan, 17-year-old Kanchi (acted by Jean Simmons when she was 17 - she'd already starred in Great Expectations - she became famous two years later as Ophelia in Hamlet) is introduced to Mopu. Sister Clodagh sees trouble but is unable to refuse her.Sister Superior goes to the cliff edge to ring the giant bell at 06:00 am each morning.  In the summer it is a lush and beautiful place, one from which you can see too far.  For Sister Clodagh, who is still a young woman, the youngest Sister Superior in the Order of Mary, memories begin to return of her previous life in Ireland before she took the vows, and her love for Con (Shaun Noble) discovered while fly fishing by a lake. When he said that he must travel, she declared, "I want to stay here like this the rest of my life". Jilted, she ends up at Mopu.  There is a message for the Sisters from the ancient Sadhu Phuba (Ley On) above them on the mountainside, who never speaks, but is revered by the local people.

It is not hard to see a trajectory where Dilip Rai will take Kanchi as his concubine and the unstable Sister Ruth will misunderstand Mister Dean's kindness and succumb, while Sister Clodagh will be attracted to Mr Dean, but stay unwavering in her vows.  Sister Phillippa seeing beauty everywhere will grow flowers.  The need for love will exacerbate Sister Ruth's madness.  The final intense, dozen minutes of this film are choreographed to a musical score already composed and conducted by Brian Easdale and played by the London Symphony Orchestra. This film adroitly combines the erotic and the exotic.

What is amazing about Black Narcissus is that it was largely made in the Pinewood Studios in London - no one went to India, though it is credited with sending people in search of the palace to hills beyond Darjeeling.  Both the production designer Alfred Junge, and the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, won Oscars in 1947 for what they achieved in this film. They were masters of light and shadow and the construction of sets. The remarkable canvasses were hand painted by W Percy Day and his sons.  It remains the most stunning British film ever made. It was made in Technicolour with special cameras with three films rolling at once in cyan, magenta and yellow that required a great intensity of light and a system that underlined the importance of shadows.  It all fits together to make the most impressive whole.

Black Narcissus is one hour and 41 minutes long. It is rated Universal.  It is in vivid technicolour and in English (no subtitles).  In addition to the above credits the editor is Reginald Mills.  The colour control is by Natalie Kamus (even down to making lips less red). 

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