This classic, brilliantly colorful film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger follows five nuns, led by Sister Clodagh, into the Himalayas to start a hospital and school for the local villagers. The battle against the elements and the local culture proves to be a formidable one, though Clodagh’s most difficult tasks comes from within—through the envious Sister Ruth and Clodagh’s own struggle with her calling and commitment.
The women arrive to find that their donated building lies atop a sheer cliff, far above the village in the valley below. This former palace, where the king’s harem was kept, sits among snow-topped peaks and puffy clouds. Simply getting to the place requires either a difficult walk or a hired animal to ride to the top. Therefore, while the sisters offer the villagers medicine and knowledge, the local ruler must still pay his people to get them to make the daily journey uphill for the free services.
Clodagh, no doubt overwhelmed by the immensity of the task before her, strikes a cool and distant posture toward outsiders, especially to the local Englishman, Mr. Dean. Having traveled to work among the people, Clodagh instead retreats within herself, struggling with the memories of better times, seen in striking contrast to the harsh environment that surrounds her now. Dean, who has no particular love for the church, takes on a rancorous attitude toward her, leaving her to struggle with righteous indignation as well.
Often in view, the image of the crucified Christ hangs just outside their building, silently watching Clodagh and the sisters carry on their work. And during these early weeks and months, the sisters seem so insulated, so consumed with their own troubles, that his presence is more an afterthought than a driving focus.
As the film progresses though, Clodagh begins to take on softer, more personal qualities. In a beautiful shot just beneath that same image of Christ, Clodagh meets the young prince and while initially resistant, she invites him to study with them at the school. She takes on a young female boarder, and she begins to take a softer position toward the bitter Dean, realizing his helpful service to them throughout. She also shows growing concern for her struggling sisters, counseling Philippa through her depression and confronting Ruth about her rebellious spirit.
That latter point is especially significant, as Clodagh is able to retain her self-control and concern for Ruth even as the latter grows increasingly spiteful and jealous. This comes to a head in a disturbingly lit sequence that highlights the darkness and anger that drives Ruth. Reds and blacks stream across the screen, highlighting bloodshot eyes and painting her into lonely corners. Yet Clodagh, as she moves through these dark spaces carrying her small lantern, never dwells in self-pity or blame. Rather, she looks after the needs of Ruth for their own sake.
The slow awakening by Clodagh to a more personal, outwardly focused attitude is punctuated by the final moments, as the women descend their mountain retreat, down into the valley full of people. Dean comments to Clodagh that she’s changed—she seems more human since she arrived. This highlights such a beautiful element of this film. These sisters came to serve Christ by serving the poor of this village—a noble goal. And from their beginning on the cold and stony heights high above the village, they eventually descend into the lush and lively valley filled with people. Clodagh, once so distant from others, has learned to come near, to think of the needs of others, and to lead with grace and generosity. This mirrors the descent and service of the one she serves, He who took on human flesh for the sake of others. Black Narcissus stands as a powerful exploration of what it means to live a life of distinctively Christian faith.