The shooting of Black Narcissus at Pinewood Studios, London, England is partly what makes the film so beautiful. For the audience to believe that St. Faith, the new school and hospital for a small Indian village, is situated high up in the Himalayas, giant matte paintings created an illusion that green valleys were thousands of feet below. Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, must stand at the edge of this painted valley to ring the convent’s bell for service. In Powell and Pressburger’s colorful Technicolor world, nothing about and the painted valley looks fake; the oily greens and blues of the matte paintings are lush, but no lusher than the rest of the set.
Shooting Black Narcissus at Pinewood Studios is also a decision that has different consequences today. The political issues of cultural authenticity, representation and appropriation, which are now open issues in film discourse, can find ammunition in the production of Black Narcissus. The film has multiple white actors perform in brownface. The filming of India’s “native” spirituality in a London studio sounds like the premise of a joke about British imperialism. The ghost-like mysticism of Hinduism is veering on Orientalism, and it would not surprise me if some audiences are put off by white characters repeatedly stating how India feels different than Britain.
These issues with cultural representation in Black Narcisuss should not be ignored, especially the practice of brownface. Yet if we don’t ignore these issues, we should also refrain from rejecting the film completely. Black Narcissus is one of the best films of the 1940s. Not only is the film shot in gorgeous Technicolor; Powell and Pressburger generate a thoughtful story by infusing the main characters with British attitudes about a colonial India that is on the cusp of gaining independence. These attitudes are racist and operate with stereotypes of mysiticism, sexuality and nature, but the film is keenly presenting these attitudes in states of failure. As was predicted at the start of the film, St. Faith is not to survive past the first rains of monsoon season.
I don’t know enough about Powell and Pressburger to make claims about the intentions of making Black Narcissus. I also have not read Rumer Godden’s novel, which is the original source material. Nevertheless, I see the insides of this film to contain ingredients for a critique of British imperialism. Much like John Ford’s The Searchers, which contains imagery that is racist in isolation, the vibrancy of Black Narcissus is an expression of its characters growing angry at their inability to control the world around them. Sister Clodagh, for instance, wants to perform missionary work but her concentration can’t win against her obsessive dislike of the non-Christian environment around her. Two minor scenes with the silent holy man establish that her frustration stems from an inability to change the environment through power. In the first scene she is irritated about the popularity of a holy man who never speaks or moves from his spot. He is peacefully sitting on a rock, but she perceives his chosen spot to be a brazen disrespect of property lines. In the second scene, Sister Clodagh goes to the holy man in search of Sister Ruth, who has rejected her missionary work and escaped from Sister Clodagh’s watch. Sister Clodagh knows by now that the holy man will not break his silence, especially on a matter of a missing nun, but she commands him to speak anyways. The holy man disobeys the command, remains silent, and Sister Clodagh lets out a yell of frustration. A small boy from the school, who is following Clodagh in her search of Ruth, reminds her that she should know better than to ask the holy man to break his vow of silence.
With no ability to see the future events of the Cold War, Powell and Pressburger coincidentally created in 1947 an ancestor to the Vietnam-War film. The nuns in Black Narcissus are invading with a religious ideology, but they have no intentions of understanding their new surroundings. Instead, they either abandon their plans — such as when Sister Philippa plants flowers instead of food — or become manic in their battle against the natives of the Himalayas — such as when Angu Ayah whips Kanchi for stealing. Ultimately, Black Narcissus ends with its own “Fall of Saigon“. Having angered the locals, the nuns are forced to retreat on donkeys. Standing high above them in their retreat is St. Faith, which was originally a harem of a past Rajput ruler.