When Bernardo Bertolucci went to the Himalayas to film Little Buddha
, so the anecdote runs, he was disappointed by the scenery. Somehow, the real thing didn't quite live up to what he'd been led to expect by Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus
. It's not hard to see why he felt let down. Their film is almost ridiculously gorgeous--a procession of saturated Technicolor, Expressionist angles, theatrical lighting and overwrought design. It has a good claim to being the high watermark of lushness in the British cinema (and, incidentally, every original foot of it was actually shot in Britain). No wonder it took the Oscar for colour cinematography (shot by Jack Cardiff) as well as for art direction and set decoration (created by Alfred Junge).
Audiences loved it on its first release, but the critics were cooler: hadn't the story been upstaged by the baroque images? Well, probably, but that's not altogether a bad thing, since the plot--quite faithful to Rumer Godden's popular novel --isn't wholly free of corn. A group of five Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) establish a school and hospital in a former harem among the Himalayan peaks. The wind blows, the drums pound, the Old Gods stir, and one by one the celibate sisters succumb to unchaste thoughts, above all Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, terrific in the role), so consumed by erotic yearning for the one Englishman in sight (David Farraar) she puts on crimson lipstick, wears her wimple-free tresses like an early Goth and takes a downward turn. (Black Narcissus features the greatest scene involving a nun and a high place this side of Hitchcock's Vertigo and Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse.) Silly, to be sure, but also sublime at times and as curiously entertaining as it is picturesque. --Kevin Jackson