Black Narcissus On DVD

Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono). 101 minutes. 1947. Criterion Collection 93. NR. $39.99.

Black Narcissus has achieved a certain status over the years—it's considered an exotic visual masterpiece filled with repressed passion and jungle colors. As a fan of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger, I was delighted to learn that The Criterion Collection was giving the film a DVD presentation worthy of its status.

Criterion has indeed come through. The film's achingly bright Technicolor palette has been given a fantastic transfer—one can only imagine that, to war-weary audiences in 1947, this film must have looked like something from some other world entirely. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff scored a career triumph with Black Narcissus, and Criterion shows us just how in a 27-minute featurette, Painting with Light, created by Craig McCall. Criterion also offers a fascinating audio commentary track—a conversation between Martin Scorsese and the late Michael Powell, who gave Criterion access to rare production stills and alternate shots, also included here. Unfortunately, the soundtrack has not held up well; despite Criterion's best efforts, it sounds distorted and ragged.

The big problem, to my way of thinking, is the film itself. It's the story of a group of nuns sent to a remote Himalayan mountaintop aerie—a former seraglio outfitted with erotic art on its walls. They face severe physical, emotional, and cultural challenges, but these don't develop or become clear from what we see on the screen. Everything is telescoped in a strange narrative style that tells us they face these challenges without ever showing them.

The problem isn't in the source material—Rumer Godden's novel is filled with characterization. But the film keeps the nuns at arm's length; I found it hard to distinguish one from another, except for the striking Deborah Kerr's Sister Superior. Her rivalry with Kathleen Byron's Sister Ruth seems to come from nowhere—a fact that was perhaps far less obvious on the set, where Kerr's status as Powell's ex-mistress, and Byron's as his then-current one, probably seemed to charge the film with an extra frisson of erotic tension. It's a shame that, for all of Black Narcissus' visual spectacle, more of that tension is not evident on the screen.