But there’s more to the film than the conflict between these two. There are also the preconceptions and presuppositions all the sisters bring to their new surroundings. These are revealed most plainly in their interactions with the Young General, upon whom Sister Ruth bestows the nickname that gives the film its title. It is the name of the fragrance the Young General obtained from the Army and Navy Stores in London, a fragrance Sister Ruth is less than enthusiastic about. She gossips with the other nuns: “‘Black Narcissus.’ That’s what I’m going to call him. It’s a wonderful name for him. He’s so vain, like a peacock. A fine black peacock.” One of the other nuns replies that the Young General isn’t black, to which an indifferent Sister Ruth responds, “They all look alike to me.”
Other characters are treated with similar dismissiveness, including the attractive lower-caste villager Kanchi (played by Jean Simmons, whose skin has been darkened with makeup). Her pursuit of an upper-caste husband is interpreted by Dean and the nuns as indicative of promiscuity and seductiveness. Indeed, as portrayed, she is largely silent, her exoticism linked with eroticism. She resembles precolonial devadasi temple dancers in India, who were esteemed for the sacrificial nature of their vocation. Ornately dressed, the devadasi would perform for Hindu gods and wealthy temple patrons. But the colonizing British, misunderstanding their role, sexualized the devadasi, who often became outcasts as a result. That’s Kanchi’s fate as well: the sisters seem to see her as beyond redemption; it’s almost as if they don’t even want to bring the Christian message to her or any of the local people.
Their own self-serving piety is plain, particularly in a scene involving the Young General, Sister Clodagh, and Dean. It follows a Christmas caroling celebration to which Mopu’s villagers were invited. The Young General thanks Sister Clodagh for allowing him to come, telling her that he is very interested in Jesus Christ. Clodagh, seemingly deaf to the positive reaction to the nuns’ evangelical mission, reacts with puritan shock: “We don’t usually speak of Jesus Christ so casually.” Dean offers his unsolicited two cents: “Well, you should! He should be as much a part of your life as your daily bread.” This sort of moralizing by the film’s non-local characters is heard throughout. Powell and Pressburger were lauded for being ahead of their time, given how critically the film portrays the evangelical mission. Little of the spiritual guidance the sisters offer, it seems, is actually rooted in selflessness or love for Christ—rather, envy, offensiveness, and Pharisaical piety seem to dominate. In this way, the nuns in Black Narcissus portray a deeply debased take on Christianity, absent of any spirit of demureness, wonder, or even authentic happiness.
But in the midst of this, the Young General—individualistic, joyful, possessive of an open heart—seems to be the character in whom God is most present. He’s scorned by the nuns for his supposed vanity, his love of the world’s beauty, his affinity for dressing in “exotic,” colorful regalia. Still, his smile is unwavering. He treats the sisters with kindness, even when it’s unreturned. The Young General is far from perfect: perhaps, at times, his vanity is consuming, his lust for Kanchi disconcerting. But he maintains an authentic innocence, exhibiting a childlike spirit of wonder that reminds us of our own innate dependence on God. He hints at the same intellectual humility that brings us closer to Christ. And though not Christian, he consistently shows interest in the faith—while those who’d evangelize in fact prevent him from fully developing this curiosity.
As Lent begins, Black Narcissus helps us consider how our initial assumptions and judgments don’t always hold up. That Christ is found less in the nuns than in the non-white, non-Christian, villagers they have come to serve forces us to check our assumptions of what is good and holy. People, after all, are more complex than their surface projections, and God reveals Himself to us in places we might least expect.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Criterion Collection #93
101 min; $23.96