In “Black Narcissus”, the wind whips around the convent in the open air, causing hearts and robes to flutter. There is music (Mopu is a place where drums beat all night under death’s watch), but sometimes it’s as if the wind provides the real soundtrack to the movie. Summarizing the duality of all humanity in the material world, Sister Philippa realizes, “There are only two ways to live in this place. […] Either ignore it or give in to it.”
Sister Ruth gives herself up to it, abandoning herself to the wind and the wings of Dionysian desire. In the throes of hysteria, the transformation she undergoes in “Black Narcissus” is mesmerizing to watch. She almost looks like a different woman at the end:
“Black Narcissus” elevates to feverish, gothic intensity, bringing us back to the bell with Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth for a final showdown that ends in tragedy. When Sister Ruth opens the doors to carry out her attempted murder, her eyes glow with envy, but there are dark circles under them and she looks pale and sweaty, almost vampiric. In the end, she loses her life due to forces beyond her knowledge, and Mr. Dean is right. Ostracized by the community they serve after the death of a sick baby under their care, Sister Clodagh and the nuns leave Mopu just as the monsoon season begins. They take the British Empire with them.
Like Mopu, “Black Narcissus” is both a palace and a prison for its characters, which holds a mystical quality. If there’s a recent film that half resembles it, it might be Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” if only for the psychological warfare between its antagonist and protagonist. And if there is a more beautifully shot film from the mid-1940s, I haven’t seen it. It’s a film that delves deep into the human psyche to explore this age-old march between love and darkness.
If Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine, what’s wrong with Mr. Dean being drunk at Christmas? And when does this mentality, applied to other things, open up a weak human to excess and self-destruction? The only possible answer, which “Black Narcissus” recognizes himself, is: “Yes, we are all human, aren’t we?”