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Black Narcissus (free)

  • Vilas Hall 821 University Avenue Madison, WI, 53706 United States (map)

A lurid psycho-sexual battle of the spirit and the flesh. Info

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Hypnotic and erotic, 1947's Black Narcissus is a colorful masterpiece of British film-making. Co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger created a number of prestigious films throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but Black Narcissus was one of their most daring accomplishments. Black Narcissus centers around Sister Clodagh, a young, inexperienced nun who is sent to the Himalayas to start a convent on the edge of a mountain. The nuns are up against a number of challenges: the altitude, the remote location, and the relentless, madness-inducing winds stir up strange emotions in each of them. Add to this the presence of hunky, cynical British agent Mr. Dean, a pair of star-crossed young lovers, and the increasingly unstable Sister Ruth, and it's only a matter of time before the sisters start to lose a grasp on reality and their faith.

A lurid psycho-sexual battle of the spirit and the flesh, Black Narcissus is driven by its unforgettable imagery. Shooting in Technicolor in a studio in England, Powell and Pressburger used models and matte paintings to create the story's exotic locale. The use of vibrant and muted color palettes are used to contrast the nuns' repressed English background with the culture they are trying to "civilize," and Sister Ruth's deteriorating mental state is expressed through a bold red palette that erupts at the film's climax. Since it is a film set in India that was filmed in London, there is a lot of unfortunate brownface acting in Black Narcissus that has not aged well—former child star Sabu is the only actual Indian actor with dialogue in the film—resulting in some cringe-inducing performances. Still, this is a riveting, sensuous classic that truly deserves to be seen on a big screen. —Ian Adcock

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