Film Review: Black Narcissus 1947

Fig 1. Black Narcissus - German Poster (1947)

Michael Powell's Film Black Narcissus is an all time classic and has around for over 60 years now. And even being made that far back there is still an element that makes it seem modern to this day.
The story follows a group of nuns who have been sent to a village near the Himalayas, to form a school and hospital for the locals. The group is lead by Sister Clodagh, who is the youngest superior of her order. While the group of nuns are there they meet a British agent named Dean, who has lived among the people for some time, and advises the nuns to not modernize the villagers. With Dean's charms and looks Sister Ruth starts to fall and possess over him, Ruth becomes increasingly jealous of her superior and Deans close relationship.

Fig 2. Matte Painting
One of the things that make this film look spectacular is the scenery, as the film relies heavily on the Himalayan surroundings. Which helps to create atmosphere and isolation. If you didn't know that the surrounding valley was a matte painting then you wouldn't of known the difference.By using matte paintings the director was able to create this sense of depth and off set locations, as it was all filmed in a studio. "The film is justly famous for its Himalayan set designs, which are a visualization of the protagonists disturbed inner worlds: an India of the mind, not of external reality." (The Art Directors Guild, S.d) As the writer explains here, the matte paintings were likely have been inspired by India and where able to create this imaginative place which could exist in the film.  

The lighting in the film is really interesting, and develops through out the film. At the start of the film where the nuns are back home in there convert, the lighting is very bland and dull, along with the rest of the set which is also bland. But as the film goes on we can see the set and lighting start to develop more color and more detailed environments.
As Sister Ruth develops this her 'madness' the colors around her are more vibrant. We can see this in figure 3. The red lighting gives off this dangerous vibe to the audience, but red lighting also signify's sex and passion. The blue shadows helps to make the red lighting really pop in this scene.

Fig 3. Lighting and Sister Ruth

The other way the lighting is used to create a dramatic effect is when we see Sister Ruth and the Superior. Through out the film the Superior is always shown to be the good sister, and Ruth to be the bad. This battle between good and evil, light and dark. "It is Clodagh and Ruth who come to embody the film's mesmerizing conflict, becoming mirror images; extremes of human nature. Powell uses close-ups of both players to reveal Clodagh's uncertainty and Ruth's blind wantonness." (Mirasol 2010) as Mirasol suggests this conflict which can link back with my  suggestion of light and dark.
The lighting helps to really set the scene for both characters. Superior Clodagh office is all bland and not much colour at all. but when seeing sister Ruth in her room there is dark lighting. They also used a blue light to create a shadow against the surrounding walls of the scene. This created a mysterious and yet unsettling scene.

In figure 4,when Ruth has entered the final stage of her madness. We can see the lighting trick being used to light the back ground to make Ruth pop even more.

Fig. 4 Ruth (1947)


Figure 1. Black Narcissus - German Poster (1947) [Film Poster] At: (Accessed on 01.12.15)

Figure 2. Matte painting (1947) [film still] At: (Accessed on 01.12.15)

Figure 3. Sister Ruth and lighting (1947) [film still] At: (Accessed on 05.12.15)

Figure 4. Ruth (1947) [Film still] At: (Accessed on 01.12.15)


Mirasol, Michael (2010) "Black Narcissus", which electrified scorsese At: (Accessed on 01.12.15)

The Art directors Guild (s.d) Black Narcissus At: (Accessed on 01.12.15)


  1. Hi Hannah! (This is weird, since I'm sitting right behind you!)

    Good start to the New Year :)
    Don't forget to italicize your quotes...

    It might also have been good to explain what a matte painting is, in case your reader was unaware... and maybe included the image of the set without the painting?

    Looking forward to seeing what you make of La Jetée...


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