Martin LeFevre: The Best Spiritual Movie Ever Made
The Best Spiritual Movie Ever Made
The best film I’ve ever seen with religious themes is “Black Narcissus.” Filmed in 1947, it deftly delves into the clash between Eastern and Western traditions; the conflict between the sensual and spiritual dimensions of human being; and ultimately, the question of whether true spirituality has any relevance in the world.
Voted the most beautiful Technicolor film ever made, “Black Narcissus” is set in the Himalayas at the “Palace of Mopu." It sits on the shelf of a mountain at 8000 feet, with views of peaks “nearly as high as Everest,” the highest of which is called “Bare Goddess.” The luscious colors and astounding vistas belie the fact the movie was made on a back lot in England.
Ostensibly, “Black Narcissus” is the story of a group of Western nuns sent to the precipitous palace to educate and provide medical care for the peasant people living in the valley below. The father of the local general built the mansion “to keep his women there.” The peasants therefore know it as “the house of women,” but the nuns rename it “Saint Faith.”
The movie opens with the General’s British agent in the area, Mr. Dean (played by David Farrar) riding in on a small donkey, bare legs dangling and sandals nearly touching the ground. I wonder, how many people catch the parody of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem?
The film cleverly unmasks the conceits of Christianity, embodied in the prideful character of Sister Clodagh (played by Deborah Kerr), “the youngest Sister Superior in our order,” as she was told at the start of her mission. When Mr. Dean asks, “are you a contemplative order…do you live in meditation, or whatever you call it…do you keep solitude?” she replies with a disdainful smirk, “our order isn’t the least like that; we are a very busy people.”
Indeed, and that is their undoing. The beauty of the place, with its constant wind, is so intense that all the repressed memories and sexuality of the nuns come spilling to the surface. Sister Clodagh is softened, made more human. Another nun loses her faith and asks to be sent home. And in the climactic scene, one goes mad.
The story pivots around the silent figure of a holy man who sits in perpetual meditation at the boundary of the compound. The epitome of renunciation of the world (once a wealthy, decorated Indian who “speaks perfect English, and several other European languages too”), he never speaks now and no one sees him eat or sleep. The villagers are very proud of him and bring him food and offerings, but the nuns don’t know what to make of him or do with him.
In a crucial scene of the movie, the Sister Superior paces off the boundaries of the property with Mr. Dean, when they come upon the holy man, who sits just inside the land given to the nuns by the General. “The holy man is living on our ground,” says Sister Clodagh. She wants him to move. But the holy man is the General’s uncle, so that is out of the question.
In an exchange that embodies the spiritual superficiality of Christianity, Sister Clodagh exasperatingly says, “Well I really don’t know what to do.” Mr. Dean’s question reverberates through the centuries regarding complete renunciates, “What would Christ have done?”
The core idea (or insight) of “Black Narcissus” is that the beauty, truth, and sublimity of nature are so overwhelming for those who are truly awakening, all an illumined person could or would do is sit in silent contemplation, since nature is utterly indifferent to human life. It reflects a question contemplatives have grappled with for millennia: Is there any relationship between the numinous and the world?
At least for this subtly drawn movie, it’s an entirely one-sided relationship. Christianity’s worldly concern degenerates into busy nuns way over their heads in the East. Jesus is portrayed as irrelevant, even naïve. The Christian notion that “God gave us his only begotten son” stands in stark contrast to the ancient East’s insight into the obliterative power of uninterested nature, and by extension, God.
“Black Narcissus” was decades ahead of its time in 1947. Sixty years later, at a time of bizarre fundamentalism on one hand, and absurd scientism on the other, it still appears decades ahead.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic
religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing
in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now
New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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