Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo (1939) di Rumer Godden. Scen.: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger. F.: Jack Cardiff. M.: Reginald Mills. Scgf.: Alfred Junge. Mus.: Brian Easdale. Int.: Deborah Kerr (suor Clodagh), Kathleen Byron (suor Ruth), Sabu (Dilip Rai, il giovane generale), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), Flora Robson (suor Philippa), Esmond Knight (Toda Rai, il vecchio generale), Jean Simmons (Kanchi), Jenny Laird (suor Blanche [Honey]), Judith Furse (suor Briony), May Hallatt (Angu Ayah). Prod.: The Archers / Rank. 35mm. D.: 101’. Col.

T. it.: Italian title. T. int.: International title. T. alt.: Alternative title. Sog.: Story. Scen.: Screenplay. F.: Cinematography. M.: Editing. Scgf.: Set Design. Mus.: Music. Int.: Cast. Prod.: Production Company. L.: Length. D.: Running Time. f/s: Frames per second. Bn.: Black e White. Col.: Color. Da: Print source

Film Notes

Probably the most famous anecdote from the making of Black Narcissus is that when the crew first assembled and asked where in India they would film, Powell answered “Horsham”, relishing the impact of this on everyone yearning for postwar travel abroad. Yet with this brand-new print from the BFI, the fact that this Technicolor masterpiece was entirely shot by Jack Cardiff at Pinewood Studio, with location work at a subtropical garden in Sussex, becomes harder to believe. Thanks to Alfred Junge’s art department, with the matte-painting of Percy Day and his team, the imagined Himalayan convent of Mopu becomes a convincing Orientalist dream. Deservedly, both Jack Cardiff and Junge won Oscars.
Powell felt that Rumer Godden’s coolly written 1939 novel could be “wildly exotic and erotic on the screen”. And unsurprisingly, Godden much preferred Renoir’s treatment of her other Indian tale The River, believing Powell and Pressburger had unduly emphasised the story’s eroticism. But when a group of Anglican nuns are lodged amid the suggestive décor of a former ruler’s “house of women”, with the sceptical male presence of their benefactor’s agent David Farrar, and an alluring young Indian woman to protect, the scene is set for an extraordinarily charged melodrama of thwarted desires.
Attention has inevitably focused on Kathleen Byron’s breakout performance as Sister Ruth, driven to madness by her passion for Farrar, but Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh, wrestling with her own conflicted desires, is no less impressive. Knowing as we do that Indian independence from Britain was already under way in the year of the film’s release, it’s hard not to read it as predicting the imperial project’s failure. For Powell, the orchestration of sound and colour in the climactic sequence was his boldest experiment in “composed cinema”. And it’s intriguing to reflect that Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, its second part still banned at this time, had also ventured into similar territory for its climax.

Ian Christie

Copy From

Print struck in 2020 by the BFI in association with ITV at Haghefilm laboratory from an interpositive printed from the original three-strip negatives. Funding provided by The National Lottery and the additional support of donors to the BFI’s Keep Film on Film campaign