Last week I saw 1947’s Powell & Pressburger convent fever dream Black Narcissus. It’s set in the high, windswept mountain peaks of India (with requisite “half devil and half child” native caricatures, so just know that going in–I really liked the blunt old lady though), where an iron-spined young Anglican nun played by Deborah Kerr tries to run a convent in a former house of concubines. It’s stunning to look at, of course, and I am not kidding about the “fever” aspect of this dream: It heads startlingly far into suspense or even Suspiria territory by the end. Great, red-meaty stuff.
At first, though, it seems like a standard nun movie. Nun movies are often also movies about women’s leadership (Bresson’s Angels of Sin is my favorite in this sub-sub-genre) and Black Narcissus nicely exploits the way the religious setting allows the women to be totally open about their clash of egos… for a while. The early conversations about starting the convent, and about Sister Clodagh’s (Kerr) self-importance, are sharp and kind of thrillingly direct.
But another typical aspect of nun flicks is almost totally absent here. Not to be indelicate, but aren’t nun movies supposed to be about God? Not Black Narcissus! I’m not sure who God is, for these nuns. Disciplinarian? (In one exchange between Sister Clodagh and the requisite dissipated, super-cute Englishman, the nun snaps, “Without discipline we should all be like children.” He answers, obviously, “Don’t you like children?”) English culture itself? (The nuns are bizarrely unwilling to teach the local princeling about Jesus; he’s not the right kind of student, not spiritual or serious enough.) Something taken so much for granted that it doesn’t have a name, or maybe just a projection of the nuns’ own inner will to power?
What God is in this movie is a kind of oppositional force, which turns the nuns crosswise to “the world”–however you want to define the world. They can’t dissolve into ordinary moral lassitude like the English heartthrob; they can’t dissolve into nature like the local holy man. They are denied the release of the Nietzschean Dionysos. So yes, this is a movie about whether a nun’s gonna have sex. But that’s because it’s a movie about whether a nun can have the shattering, self-emptying surrender of will which this movie–kind of startlingly–sets up as the opposite of Christian duty.