High up in the mountains of the Himalayas there is a building, once built by inhabited and later abandoned by friars. It is known to the locals as “the house of women” and it is there a new group of women comes to make their home. They are nuns, sisters of Saint Faith, and they have come to build a hospital and a school to help the locals. Their sister Superior is newly appointed, young and untried, named Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). There is also Sister Honey who is young and foolish, Sister Phillippa (Flora Robson) who is hard working and stoic, Sister Briony who is blunt and forthright, and Sister Ruth (Kathrine Byron) who is troubled and high strung. The sisters are to be assisted in their endeavors by the Governer’s agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), a man who is more native than English now having spent so much time in the region.
As the sisters settle in to their new homes they must adjust to the native culture and environment. Sister Briony notes that none of the villagers speak English save their child interpreter named Joseph, and while Sister Honey thinks they are sweet, Sister Ruth thinks that they are ignorant and savage. Sister Clodagh does her best to keep the nuns focused and to keep Sister Ruth under control. She also attempts to find a way of interacting with Mr. Dean, whom she finds irritating and infuriating, though she does not always seem to know why. Mr. Dean for his part seems to find Sister Clodagh amusing and tells her that he gives the sisters until the rains break before they will be hurrying back to the mother house.
Time passes and the sisters become more and more enmeshed in the local society. Their school for girls is thriving and Sister Honey is enjoying looking after the little babies during the day. The hospital is well stocked and is a source of help for many villagers. The new Young General (Sabu) who has taken over as ruler of the village has started coming to the school to be taught by Sister Ruth, and the gardens are being planted. All seems well. But the sisters are finding themselves affected by their surroundings. Perhaps it is the high altitude, the crystal clear air, or the constant wind. Sister Briony notes that everyone is suffering from spots and other maladies from the drinking water. Sister Phillippa is finding it difficult to focus on her work and has planted an entire garden of flowers, instead of the vegetables they need. She also tells Sister Clodagh that she is starting to find it hard to refocus and remember her purpose, the reason why she became a nun, the parts of her past life that she has tried to forget. Sister Clodagh is having similar problems as well, remembering her life in Ireland and the failed romance that sent her to the convent. And Sister Ruth? Sister Ruth is becoming more and more wrung out, more and more unhinged. Matters are not helped much by the arrival of Mr. Dean and a young charge to live with the sisters, a low caste dancing girl named Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who soon catches the eye of the Young General.
Things continue on for a time, the sisters try to move past their unsettled feelings and distracted minds, and then one fateful day a young mother brings her sick baby to the hospital. Sister Briony tells her to take the child home, much to Sister Honey’s horror. Sister Briony tells Sister Honey that the child is dying and that nothing can be done, that the kindest thing would be to let the baby go home and die among family. But Sister Honey cannot bear to let the baby go without anything and so she gives the mother a bottle of castor oil, thinking little of it. The next day no one shows up to classes, the servants do not come, and the Young General has disappeared. Mr. Dean investigates and finds that the villagers blame the nuns for the baby’s death and so will not come up the mountain. As for the Young General, he has run off with Kanchi. Amidst this turmoil Sister Clodagh hears the news that Sister Ruth has left the order. Not only that but unbeknownst to Sister Clodagh, Sister Ruth has fallen in love with Mr. Dean and is convinced that he loves her too. Unstable and half mad, Ruth runs off into the jungle to find the man she loves.
This film is always noted for being visually beautiful. Often sited as one of the greatest examples of Technicolor in film, it is certainly a feast for the senses. I think that this is in order to give us an experience as close to that of the nuns as possible. Each scene is so full of color, pattern, and beauty that it can seem overwhelming to behold it all. Each scene is full of sound as well, music or just effects, it is ever present. The wind is always blowing, whether quietly or loud, and it is the constant soundtrack of the mountain.
I remember watching this film many years ago when I was young. Back then it didn’t have the same impact on me as it did now. I think because now watching it I can see that it is a really interesting look at the roles and restrictions on women in society. The nuns are so restrained, so controlled, so held together by the rules of their society. By contrast the women in the Himalayas are so free and unencumbered that it is startling. As the nuns spend more and more time among these “free women” they find themselves questioning their motives for joining the sisterhood, remembering past moments that they had pushed deep down inside. In some ways I felt like this was a comment on how women are restricting and withholding their desires and urges in order to fit into modern society. They are meant to behave almost like nuns rather than emotional and full blooded women.
As for Sister Ruth, I read that while Powell wanted Sister Ruth to be just completely insane, Kathrine Byron wanted to show her as a woman who was damaged but could have been helped if the hand had been offered. I found this so intriguing, that a man would simply say “Oh she is crazy” and be done with it, and a woman would say “No there is a reason why she is this way, there is more than meets the eye”. By thinking of Sister Ruth in Byron’s light we can see more how societal restrictions were damaging to the women they affect. The sisters of Saint Faith never gave Sister Ruth compassion or understanding really, rather they believed that hard work, introspection, and stoic resolve would banish any demons that would bother her. It seems some times that society fears an emotional woman, wanting to simply dismiss her as crazy or weak. If Sister Ruth would have been given some acknowledgment of her feelings, would things have been different? It is an interesting point to consider when watching this film.
BLACK NARCISSUS is a sweeping story, one that envelops the viewer and deposits them hours later breathless and starry eyed. Much like the ill-fated sisters of Saint Faith.