Teaching Students About Black Narcissus
Teaching students the art of cinema is a crucial aspect of comprehensive education in the film world. One such masterpiece that should be intricate to any film studies curriculum is the 1947 classic ‘Black Narcissus’, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This article aims to discuss the significance of the movie and provide guidelines for teaching students about this iconic film.
Context and History
Begin the lesson by giving students a brief overview of the film’s context and history. Explain that ‘Black Narcissus’ is an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same title. Convey how Powell and Pressburger were known for their successful collaboration, which produced highly regarded films, such as ‘A Canterbury Tale’ (1944) and ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948). Discuss how ‘Black Narcissus’ was released during Britain’s post-war period when filmmakers were experimenting with new visual styles and stories.
Provide students with a concise plot summary without giving away significant spoilers. The story revolves around Sister Clodagh, who leads a group of nuns to establish a convent in the remote Himalayan palace. As they settle in, each nun starts battling with repressed desires, memories, and emotions, threatening their collective sanity as well as their mission.
Discuss key themes within ‘Black Narcissus’, such as spiritual struggle, cultural ignorance, insanity, isolation, female desire, power dynamics within religion, and human behavior under extreme conditions. Encourage students to analyze scenes from the film to support these themes.
Talk about Jack Cardiff’s exceptional work on cinematography that contributed significantly to the movie’s acclaim. Introduce students to techniques like Technicolor and explore how these accomplished specific moods and emotions in various sequences. Point out examples where color symbolism reflects psychological states of the characters.
Set Design and Costumes
Describe how set design and costumes enhanced the movie’s visual appeal and cultural aspects. Explain that most of the film was shot on soundstages in England, with painted backdrops by matte artist Walter Percy Day that combined seamlessly with Cardiff’s cinematography.
Focus on performances by Deborah Kerr (Sister Clodagh), Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth), David Farrar (Mr. Dean), and other supporting actors. Help students understand how acting plays a vital role in storytelling by demonstrating subtle yet powerful expressions, body language, and voice modulation present in ‘Black Narcissus.’
As the lesson concludes, allow students to engage in open discussion or a group project to dissect the film further. Encourage them to explore how different aspects of filmmaking play into making ‘Black Narcissus’ a cinematic classic. By including Pressburger and Powell’s masterpiece in your curriculum, you will provide your students with an invaluable opportunity to study one of the essential films within British cinema history.