Filmsite Movie Review
Black Narcissus (1947)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Troublesome Signs and Problems During Springtime at the Convent:

After a dissolve to black and then a jump-cut, there were triumphant and brilliant splashes of color radiating from the exotic variety of spring flowers blooming on the mountaintop. Sister Ruth observed and intercepted young Joseph Anthony carrying mail packages up the hill to the convent - she demanded one of the parcels that she claimed was hers: "It's mine. Give it to me, you fool. It's addressed to me. Look, I ordered it myself from Calcutta. It's nothing to do with anyone else."

It was discovered by Sister Honey that a chain from a hanging liturgical brass fixture in the chapel had gone missing. Kanchi was immediately blamed for absconding with the brass chain for her own personal adornment ("around her dirty neck"), and soundly whipped by Ayah, while each of her infractions were reiterated with each blow:

  • And that for stealing in my house!
  • And that for stealing a brass chain which is worth only two __ !
  • That's for stealing it in such a silly way!
  • And that is for getting found out!

Nearby, the Young General heard Kanchi's screams and intervened on her behalf. When Ayah urged him to resume the beating: "Finish the beating, and begin to be a man!", he forgave Kanchi and threw away the whip. He ordered her up, and as she half-way sat up, her face was uncomfortably near his crotch. After he placed one of his gold chains around her neck, she stood up and embraced him.

Sister Clodagh, who was quietly engaged in needle-point work, overheard Joseph Anthony calling out the names of the colorful flowers that were planted in Sister Philippa's garden: "Forget-me-not...Sweet pea....Daffodil....Japanese peony...Chinese lily.... Tulip....Honeysuckle...Delphinium." According to a garden chart, Sister Philippa should have been planting life-sustaining vegetables for their survival -- Potatoes, Runner Beans, Onions, Cabbages, and Peas. When summoned and confronted in Sister Clodagh's presence, Sister Philippa was asked: "But what on earth came over you - ?"

The confused and wayward Sister Philippa admitted her error and immediately asked to be transferred from Mopu and escape her life's dilemma. She realized that she had repressed her love of nature when she described her affliction:

I was becoming too fond of the place. I was too wrapped up in my work. I - I thought too much about it. I'd forgotten...What I am. I was losing the spirit of our order. I've been thinking it over, you see, and I must go at once.

Although Sister Clodagh discouraged her from running away, she insisted that she couldn't live between the two worlds of the spirit (or asceticism) and the flesh (eroticism):

Sister Philippa: I daren't stay. I think there are only two ways of living in this place. Either you must live like Mr. Dean, or, or like the holy man. Either ignore it, or give yourself up to it.
Sister Clodagh: Neither would do for us.
Sister Philippa: No.
Sister Clodagh: Well, we are here, and I don't think it will help matters if we run away. You know if I ask for you to be transferred, it'll be a bad mark against you?
Sister Philippa: That's all the better. That's what I need.

At the same time, horns blared from the village - Sister Briony and Sister Honey were attending to a sick infant in the dispensary. Sister Briony took the baby's temperature - 103 degrees (over a three day period). Remembering Mr. Dean's advice, Sister Briony refused to treat the child, knowing that it was futile, and she advised nothing ("Let him sleep. Take him home, and put him on your bed and let him sleep...There's nothing I can do").

However, the maternalistic Sister Honey frantically wanted to treat the child with medicine ("But there must be something we can do"), initially suggesting magnesia or paraffinic mulch, and then begging: "At least bathe his eyes or relieve his tummy with a little oil." She became hysterical when Briony refused: "You've only got to look at him to see how it must hurt him! You're thinking of what Mr. Dean said!" Sister Honey was cautioned to calm down:

That's enough, Sister! I won't have any hysteria from you. I know what I'm doing. The best and kindest thing you can do is to make her go home, where she'll be amongst her own people.

By the next morning, the school, garden and dispensary were eerily quiet and deserted with no villagers present. Sister Honey was worried, and realized something was wrong when Sister Ruth could not get the reluctant Joseph Anthony to tell what he knew. He finally revealed: "The little baby is dead!..." - and the locals were very angry and had blamed the nuns. Also, the Young General and Kanchi were reported by Ayah to have run away together - presumably to elope. Sister Ruth reacted to the burgeoning chaos: "We're all alone. There's no one in the house." The well-intentioned but culturally-insensitive Sister Honey had secretly (off-screen) and foolishly given the mother a placebo and confessed to what she had done:

It was my fault. Because I loved him. Because I couldn't bear to see him die. I did it! I killed him! I gave her a bottle to take away, some of our cotton wool and one of our spoons. I killed him! I killed him!

Ayah cautioned that it was unsafe for any of the nuns to leave the isolated confines of the convent and garden area and visit the village, although Sister Ruth volunteered to go. The bell on the edge of the cliffside was rung to alert Mr. Dean to the growing catastrophe.

A bare-chested Mr. Dean was summoned to the convent and arrived to advise Sister Clodagh about the extreme urgency of the situation: "I'm not trying to frighten you, but I want you to see that it may be serious. I've been down to the village." He told them of a past incident in the area when the villagers took revenge, and cautioned them to take everything very seriously. He had been to the village and to prove that the baby hadn't been poisoned, he boasted how he drank the medicine (castor oil) given to the infant. He gave them two items of counsel - they mustn't leave the convent, and then should "try to behave as though nothing had happened." However, there were signs that the malevolent and invasive forces of the palace were beginning to overwhelm and disrupt the nuns' cause.

Sister Clodagh's Confessional to Mr. Dean:

Sister Ruth - now further disturbed - sat quietly in the classroom, bathed in a reddish-pink glow from the setting sun over the snow-capped mountain tops. She was in deep thought as Joseph Anthony brought her a single glass of milk. When she learned that the milk had been ordered by Sister Clodagh, she dumped out its contents from her balcony, and happened to notice Mr. Dean and Sister Clodagh discussing the convent's problems below in the courtyard. With her veil and nun's outfit trailing behind her, she raced through the palace to follow after them. She stealthily snuck up on them and from the shadows behind latticework, she jealously eavesdropped on their conversation - prefaced by the blast of horns in the village - as they stood at the edge of the cliffside precipice. The chasm was a symbol of the precarious situation facing everyone.

Mr. Dean first mentioned that he noticed a major change in her demeanor - she was "much nicer" and "human." He had begun to sense that she had a whole interior life of romance, temptation, and sensuality that she was protecting and had kept unspoken. Sister Clodagh confided in Mr. Dean about her own personal life, including her tormented past memories of a romantic failure when she had shown her love (had sex?). The real reason that she had opted to join the convent and escape was due to her lover's rejection and her family's expectations. She confessed:

When I was a girl, I loved a man. We were children together in Ireland, where I come from. A little place called Dennis Kelly. I thought - everyone thought we should marry. But he was ambitious, and I found out he was going to America to his uncle, and he didn't intend to take me. He didn't think he was doing anything wrong. I don't think he ever thought of us marrying. But in a little place like that, and I had shown I loved him, I had to get away first....

It was a strange way of bringing me in, but God works in strange ways. I had work to do, and I had the life. No one outside can possibly know what that means. It came to be my life. I had forgotten everything until I came here. The first day I came, I thought of him for the first time for years. I seem to go back to the first time I loved him, when we were children. The young general reminds me of him, too. The world comes thrusting in behind him. I've been drifting and dreaming, and now I seem to be living through the struggle and the bitterness again. (Her voice quivered with tearful emotion)

When he assured her that the problems at Mopu would soon calm down: ("It'll all blow over. There's nothing really wrong"), she then confessed how she had failed. She told him that Sister Philippa was leaving, and Sister Ruth had given up the order by not renewing her yearly vows. She also described the formidable challenges, obstacles, turmoils, and inhospitable, invisible forces that she had faced, and how she was inevitably forced to rely on his masculine help - she interpreted everything as a sign of her own weakness and failure of her own mastery, willfulness, ability and self-control. She had been struggling both with her mind's past memories, with outside pressures or problems that she couldn't dislodge or control (such as the presence of the Young General and the Holy Man), and with the difficult environmental and physical conditions (the incessant wind, illness, and the high-altitude atmosphere):

Ever since we came here, over all our troubles, it's been, 'Ask Mr. Dean. Ask Mr. Dean.' There was just no one else you could ask. But I had to take the young general. I couldn't turn out the holy man. I couldn't stop the wind from blowing and the air from being as clear as crystal and I couldn't hide the mountain.

The sensible, rational-minded Mr. Dean strongly advised her to vacate ("run away") from their doomed efforts at the palace, as he had predicted months earlier:

Look, you must get away from here, all of you, at once....I told you it was no place to put a nunnery. There's something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated. Don't you understand? You must all get away before something happens!

The camera ominously cut to a view of Sister Ruth.

Sister Ruth's Hysterical Confrontation with Sister Clodagh:

A dark circle of angered tribal drummers beat out a rhythm before a fire to signal increased tensions, juxtaposed with Sister Clodagh descending a convent staircase with a candle, and listening in at the closed bedroom doors of the other nuns:

  • One nun in prayer (Sister Philippa?): "May Thy holy angels dwell here and keep us in peace."
  • Another nun sobbing (Sister Honey?)
  • A third nun snoring (Sister Briony?)
  • At Sister Ruth's door, the light went out when she knocked, and a chair was propped up to prevent entry

When Sister Clodagh forced open the fourth door, she was stunned to find herself face-to-face with the mentally-insane and disturbed Sister Ruth, who had been planning her revenge and was preparing to leave the oppressive order. [Note: The postal-mail parcel she had received included a commercial item she had purchased from Calcutta - a dress.] She had discarded her nun's habit after renouncing her nunhood, and was wearing a forbidden, form-fitting, sexually-provocative red evening dress (a symbolic statement of her break, and her passionate and newfound freedom). Her fiery red hair was also unleashed (a striking similarity between the two of them) and was staunchly defiant:

Sister Ruth: You can't order me about. You have nothing to do with me anymore.
Sister Clodagh: (begging) I know what you've done. I know that you've left the order. I only want to stop you from doing something that you'll be sorry for. Sister Philippa is going back in a few days time. I want to send you with her.
Sister Ruth: That's what you would like to do, send me back and shut me up. That's what you would all like to do!
Sister Clodagh: You know that isn't true. Why should we want to keep you here against your will?
Sister Ruth: Because you're all jealous of me, especially you!
Sister Clodagh: At least wait till the morning. Wait till the morning, and I'll wait with you.

With sweat beading on her feverish brow, and with her bloodshot eyes becoming increasingly red - when approaching the crux of a nervous breakdown, Sister Ruth snickered back at Sister Clodagh. She sat across from her at a table, opened up a small compact mirror (with a red backing), and sensuously applied bright red lipstick on her parched lips - seen in an extreme close-up. To deny her blatant surrender to earthly flesh, the chaste Sister Clodagh reached for her Bible and opened it - creating a mirror image of conflicting extremes. A single candle flame illuminated one of the bordello's art paintings - two jump-cuts revealed the consumed candle (the passage of time). Sister Clodagh fell asleep in her chair (her Bible dropped from her lap), as Ruth donned boots and slipped out, and the candle flame extinguished. Clodagh awoke just as Ruth fled out the door and rushed down the hallway, with hysterical laughter. She called out for the other nuns and Ayah to stop her:

It's Sister Ruth! Stop her! She's gone mad!

The nuns frantically searched for her on the grounds and outdoors, but there was no sign of her. It would also be futile, according to Joseph Anthony, to try to alert the impassive and unconcerned Holy Man (who was on a completely different plane of existence) to the urgent problems of the nuns ("He wouldn't notice it").

Ruth's Attempted Seduction of Mr. Dean:

The sexually-conflicted and starved Sister Ruth, who had turned mad with lust for British government intermediary Mr. Dean, descended from the mountain into a bamboo forest on the valley floor. With an interminable drum beat in the background, she gasped when she heard the roar of an unseen animal, and birds squawked at her. From the shadows, Mr. Dean watched her (with his shot-gun readied) as she entered his empty, lit-up house - a quaint reminder of domesticity. When he entered a few moments later, she explained why she was there:

I can't stand it any longer. I left the order. I gave up my vows. I've finished with them up there.

When he volunteered to get her to a rest house for the evening, and arrange transportation (with ponies and porters) to Darjeeling the next morning, she startled him by professing her love: "I love you." He quickly rejected her and suggested returning her to the palace and nunnery for help (realizing that she was sick), but she refused:

Mr. Dean: Well, if you do, you can forget about it. (She whimpered in reaction) I'm sorry, Sister Ruth. Very sorry, but - look, let me take you back to the palace. It isn't too late. Sister Clodagh is your friend. She spoke to me about you last night. She wants to help you.
Ruth: She hates me. They all hate me. You're the only one that's ever been kind to me.
Mr. Dean: I? I've hardly spoken a word to you.
Ruth: Yes, you have. The first time was when I stopped the old native woman from bleeding to death, you said you were grateful.
Mr. Dean: Did I?
Ruth: And then when you stopped me that day in the hall, you said -
Mr. Dean: Oh, whatever I said, it didn't mean a thing! Ever since you came here, you've all gone crazy. Well, drive one another crazy, but leave me out of it!

After his blunt rejections of her, the frustrated Ruth crazily insisted that Dean was in love with Clodagh, but he denied loving her or anyone else ("I DON'T LOVE ANYONE!"). The POV shot of her facing him slowly and dramatically turned blood red - as she repeatedly chanted "Clodagh," passed out, and crashed to the floor. The sequence faded to purple and ended in a black screen.

Shortly later, she regained consciousness draped in a chair, but was drenched with sweat. She propped herself up, glared at Dean, promised to leave, and insisted on going alone. She had already determined, in her lethal madness, that she would eliminate her feminine rival upon her return. As he consented to her demand to return by herself, and helped her with her coat, she turned and briefly kissed his hand.

Ruth vs. Clodagh - A Lethal Confrontation:

As the pink dawning light of the sunrise fell upon Sister Clodagh at 5:45 am in a dramatic silhouette (positioned before the snow-capped mountains while she stood near the bell-tower), Joseph Anthony brought her a glass of milk, and told her the significance of the time: "People call it the flowing of the snows." Sister Clodagh retreated to the chapel to pray by herself.

In the Gothic horror sequence, from behind a doorway, Sister Clodagh was being spied upon by Ruth, whose visage had totally gone through a metamorphosis - her stringy hair, wet forehead, and red-rimmed dark black eyes were a premonition of jealous and deadly vengeful hatred.

Pink light filtered into the chapel as Sister Clodagh entered to seek solace and calm. She collapsed to supplicate herself when the door creaked open - an extremely tensely filmed sequence. There was a fleeting glimpse of Ruth running up the stairs. Sister Clodagh leaned over for a cooling drink of water, as the camera (from Ruth's POV) observed her from an open rafter above. Clodagh glanced at her watch - it was 6:00 am - she exited and walked along the edge of the cliffside precipice and chasm to the belltower, to reach for the rope and ring the morning bell. The skinny, cat-like figure of Ruth was viewed slinking along a wall ledge and prowling after Clodagh - ready to pounce on her prey. Sister Clodagh stepped up onto the bell platform, and dizzingly looked down as she pulled on the rope and the bell clanged. She prayed with each pull of the rope: "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed is the fruit of thy womb."

Ruth emerged from a doorway - with fiery evil and reddish eyes - her red dress was now transformed into a black shroud. She stealthily approached the bell-tower in the cathartic ending scene. She came up from behind her intended, unaware, and unprotected victim. A desperate struggle ensued as Ruth rushed forward and pushed Sister Clodagh toward the chasm. She was saved from death by grabbing ahold of the belltower rope, but she still dangled precariously over the edge. She tried to regain her footing on the platform to save herself, while her hands grasped the bell rope above her. Ruth frantically attempted to peel her fingers away from the rope. When Sister Clodagh was able to right herself, Ruth lost her balance and plunged backward to her death, as Clodagh watched with horror as screams followed Ruth's body into the depths.

The Nuns' Retreat From The Palace:

As the day dawned, suddenly the tribal drums ceased. Cured or exorcised, Sister Philippa walked calmly through the village with a parcel of purple flowers in her arms. With tears on her cheeks, she offered them to a crucifix statue of Jesus.

At the convent, the nuns prepared for their departure and evacuation after their defeated year-long stay, as workers loaded up their belongings. The Young General had returned to apologize to Sister Clodagh for his unexpected disappearance and abandonment of his studies, and for doing "a very wrong thing" - he claimed it wasn't deliberate and wouldn't be repeated. He vowed to remain with his own traditions and ancestral heritage (of "warriors and princes") in his country:

I don't mean to do anything wrong again. I'm going to give up being clever and famous. I'm going to be exactly like my ancestors. They were warriors and princes. They were modest and brave and polite, and they never did anything cheating. That is why I came to you as soon as I thought of it, to tell you what I have done.

Because of his own embarrassment, he had asked Mr. Dean about how to describe his wrong-doing, and came up with a convenient and easy explanation for his marriage to Kanchi: "He said to tell it was the story of the prince and the beggar maid." The vain Young General had indeed adopted the ways of his uncle's father, who had kept concubines in the palace.

After a dissolve, the nuns departed back down the mountain, riding side-saddle on miniature ponies. One last time, Sister Clodagh glanced back and upward at the abandoned palace perched high above (still symbolically unattainable as an ideal), as it began to magically vanish in the clouds like an hallucination that could do no more harm to the sisters.

Mr. Dean rode up on his short-legged pony, dismounted, and was prepared to say goodbye. She reminded him of his premonition of their failure once the rains began: "You said you'd give us till the rains break," but he noted: "They haven't broken yet." After the failures at Mopu, Sister Clodagh would be dispatched to a new convent "with less responsibility" and she accepted the fact that she would be "superseded as sister-in-charge." He asked whether she would be able to "stomach" the failure and demotion, since she was such a "stiff-necked, obstinate creature." She thought she deserved the humbling change to serve elsewhere as a redemptive and just punishment for her inadequacies and prideful weakness:

Sister Clodagh: It's what I need. I expect I shall have to remind myself of it a hundred times a day. I can't change in a minute like the young general. But I shall have my ghosts to remind me.
Mr. Dean: You're leaving me with more than one.

Now wiser, humbler and more mature, she also asked for one final favor ("Will you look after the grave?") and he obliged. In a bittersweet moment, they parted ways with a handshake that morphed into hand-holding - it was the only instance in the film of their repressed and unspoken desire for each other.

In the final few moments of the film, a few drops of rain on luscious, leafy green plants signaled the start of the monsoonal season. The camera slowly rose up to track the small caravan's departure as a cloudburst commenced. The final two shots of the film were a low-angled view of Mr. Dean on his pony, now looking less foolish and more heroic, and then a close-up of his rugged face (covered with raindrops) looking backward as he sadly watched them withdraw and disappear. A misty fog drifted over and obscured them from his view.

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