Restrictions imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have had a devastating impact on art institutions, commercial and independent alike. In the world of film, major-studio releases are delayed, independent films are falling through the cracks as theaters across the United States go dark, and repertory programs have been cancelled altogether. As unequivocally rich as cinematic history is, accessibility to those riches can be limited even in ordinary times—whether it’s a shortage of quality prints, legal and distribution issues, or plain-old unavailability. That’s what makes repertory screenings so vital, especially when a theater takes pains to show a new restoration or archival print. These independent theaters deserve year-round support.
Thankfully, it’s possible to catch up on some of the casualties of the COVID closings from the comfort of home. Here’s a look at three films—all available through streaming—that were to have appeared in April as part of a special program of movies featuring nuns at New York’s Metrograph Theater.
Black Narcissus (1947), directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were early specialists in mythical technicolor melodrama. 1947’s Black Narcissus just might be their richest thematic achievement—a knotty, empathetic portrait of repression and faith in crisis. An order of nuns under the tutelage of ambitious Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) come to the high Himalayas to establish a school and hospital for the local population, despite the inevitable clashing of cultures (the seraglio they operate from was once home to a harem) and the arid harshness of the mountainous environment. Powell and Pressburger don’t dismantle the idea of faith, but rather cast a nuanced view on its practice, whether as an expression of privileged cultures or one of authentic belief in the divine and true hope for salvation. The cast––which not only includes David Farrar and Kathleen Byron, but also the one-and-only Sabu as “The Young General”––hold their own remarkably as their characters’ resolve is tested throughout each glorious studio set-piece, captured sumptuously by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. More deliriously noirish and tense than its premise would initially suggest, Black Narcissus brings surprises at nearly every turn; the simplest of moments or gestures carries visceral symbolic weight, whether the daily ringing of the church bell or the shock of crimson on one sister’s lips, the otherwise mundane cosmetic application signaling an explicit break from the convent.
Available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and The Criterion Channel
La Religieuse/The Nun (1966), directed by Jacques Rivette