Black Narcissus is a 1947 film by the British director-writer-producer team of Michael Powell
and Emeric Pressburger, based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Rumer Godden. A group of Anglican nuns travel to the Palace of Mopu, high in the Himalayas (near Darjeeling). They are there to set up a school and hospital for the local people, only to find themselves increasingly seduced by the sensuality of their surroundings—a converted seraglio—and by the local British agent Mister Dean (David Farrar). Clodagh (Deborah Kerr
), a newly promoted Sister Superior, is attempting to forget a failed romance that occurred before she took her vows. Tensions mount as Dean makes an impression on Clodagh, but also attracts Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron).
This film contains examples of:
- All Love Is Unrequited: Sister Clodagh's backstory; later, her and Sister Ruth's fascination with Mr. Dean.
- Break the Haughty: Sister Clodagh's pride undergoes a severe battering over the course of the film. By the end, the entire community has collapsed, with one nun dead and another leaving the order, and Sister Clodagh knows that she will not be given such a responsibility again for a very long time, if ever.
- Brownface / Fake Nationality: Of the major Indian characters, only the Young General is played by an actual Indian, Sabu. The others are whites in makeup. Averted with the background characters, many of whom were Indian Nationals who were working at the Rotherhithe docks.
- Brutal Honesty: Mother Dorothea tells Sister Clodagh point-blank that "I don't think you're ready" for the responsibility of running a community.
- The Casanova: This is Mr. Dean's local reputation, although it's not clear how much he's earned it.
- Christianity is Catholic: Here, Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic.
- Culture Clash: The conflict between the nuns (and the monks who preceded them) and the villagers.
- Disney Villain Death: Sister Ruth falls to her death during her fight with Sister Clodagh.
- The Ditz: Sister Honey, an instance of Popular Is Dumb.
- Evil Makeover: Sister Ruth putting on her makeup in front of Sister Clodagh.
- Fill It With Flowers: Played with, as it's a sign of being Driven to Madness instead of hope. Overcome by the landscape, Sister Philippa plants the convent gardens with gorgeous flowers instead of vegetables, meaning that there will be no food for the coming year.
- Foreshadowing: Mr. Dean tells the sisters to be extremely careful about which patients to accept, as the villagers will react badly if anything goes wrong. Sister Honey later tries and fails to treat a terminally ill baby, precipitating the convent's failure.
- Hostile Weather: The endless wind, one of the most stressful aspects of the environment.
- Iron Lady: Sister Clodagh tries to be this.
- Lethal Chef: Sister Briony's coffee leaves much to be desired.
- Love Makes You Crazy
- Murder the Hypotenuse: Sister Ruth eventually tries to murder Sister Clodagh in order to possess Mr. Dean. However, he's not interested in pursuing a relationship with either of them.
- Naughty Nuns: Sisters Clodagh and Ruth are clearly attracted to Mister Dean.
- Old Retainer: Angu Ayah has been attached to the House of Women since it was a seraglio.
- Scenery Porn: Despite being accomplished by elaborate sets and matte paintings. The whole film was shot in England, mostly Pinewood Studios.
- Servile Snarker: Angu Ayah.
- Taking A Third Option: Dean tells Sister Clodagh that the only way to thrive in Mopu is to either ignore their environment or give in to it. Most of the nuns do neither. With disastrous results.
- Taking the Veil: The sisters must renew their vows every year, which adds to the tension as their stay in Mopu continues.
- Translation Convention: In context, it makes sense that the Young General and the Old General speak fluent English, as they're both interested in the trappings of English culture. But it's not clear why the Old General speaks English to Angu Ayah.
- Troubled Backstory Flashback: Sister Clodagh has a series of these as she remembers how her life was before she took her vows. They start out as Happy Flashbacks.
- Uncanny Valley Makeup: Sister Ruth's makeup gets creepier and creepier as she gets crazier, to the point where she looks like she's wearing a corpselike mask in the finale.
- Villainous BSOD: Sister Ruth's breakdown after being rejected by Mr. Dean.
- The Voiceless: Kanchi screams occasionally, but has no spoken dialogue.
- White Man's Burden: Invoked and interrogated. The nuns begin by thinking that they are admired by their Indian students, when, in reality, the Indians are just barely tolerating the arrangement.
- Young and in Charge: Mother Dorothea mentions that Sister Clodagh is exceptionally young to be in charge of a convent.