Birkbeck Cinema, 15 June 2018,  6.00 pm
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Black Narcissus
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, UK, 1947, 100 minutes Birkbeck Cinema
Presenter: Carmen Mangion (Birkbeck)

Nuns set up a convent in a former seraglio on a mountain in remote Darjeeling. What could go wrong?

In Black Narcissus (1947) Powell and Pressburger produced their first completely post-war film. Though A Matter of Life and Death (1946) had been made after the war, the war was its backdrop. Partly because Black Narcissus is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, it makes no reference to the war—or, for that matter, to Indian independence, which was recognised a few months after its release.

Instead, it is preoccupied with themes Powell and Pressburger had explored in earlier films, especially a mysterious sense of place and tradition, cutting across rational individualism. Sexuality figures powerfully but ambiguously. It can derange. Yet, if it smacks of otherness, it’s an otherness to be found within—and never more terrifyingly than when Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is transformed by self-regard, lust and jealousy. In that regard, it sits ironically in relation to the film’s exotic setting, which might seem at first to embody an otherness located without. The film’s cross-racial casting, however objectionable it may seem now, possibly contributes to the film’s exploration of an otherness within.

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