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Critic's Notebook

Faith, lust, madness, humility — in Technicolor

Remastered 'Narcissus' among Criterion releases

Kathleen Byron in a scene from Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus,' winner of the 1947 Oscar for best color cinematography. Kathleen Byron in a scene from Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus," winner of the 1947 Oscar for best color cinematography. (Universal Pictures via Photofest)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / July 18, 2010

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Of the two Michael Powell classics being released by Criterion this Tuesday in remastered versions for DVD and Blu-Ray, “The Red Shoes’’ is surely the one most people will be talking about. And for good reason: The 1948 ballet melodrama — the best known and arguably the best of Powell’s intense Technicolor dreamscapes — arrives in a two-disc set that surrounds a jaw-dropping restored print from the UCLA Film and TV Archive with generous extras, including a lot of input from Powell’s No. 1 fan, Martin Scorsese.

Allow a few words to be said, then, for the week’s other Powell release, “Black Narcissus.’’ The winner of the 1947 Oscar for best color cinematography, it is, in this writer’s opinion, the most beautiful Technicolor movie ever made. More than that, “Narcissus’’ is a stunning emotional masterpiece about faith, lust, madness, and humility. Based on a Rumer Godden novel, it’s a suspense chiller, a love story, a culture-clash travelogue, and one of the very few feature films about female sexual desire in the classic or any other era.

Even more startling: The characters are nuns. A young Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, dispatched by her superiors to an abandoned palace — a former harem, actually — high in the Indian Himalayas to found a mission school and clinic for the local villagers. She and the four sisters accompanying her are serene in their faith that they know what’s best, but they’re undone, one by one, by the altitude, the constant wind, the teeming jungle below, and by the presence of the local British land agent (David Farrar), a strapping atheist with a manly chest and short shorts.

Kerr is very good as Sister Clodagh, her pride slowly eroded by the elements, but “Narcissus’’ is stolen by Kathleen Byron as the seethingly neurotic Sister Ruth, finally driven to psychosis by longing and jealousy. The sequence in which this character puts on lipstick — almost obscenely red in cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s color scheme — remains one of the creepiest mad scenes in the movies.

The entire film seems to gasp for oxygen, really, and it’s amusing to learn that “Black Narcissus’’ was shot entirely on a British studio lot: It’s not so much real as hyper-real. In one of the disc’s extras, a 30-minute documentary titled “Painting With Light,’’ Cardiff recalls how he lit and composed the shots as if they were paintings by Vermeer and Caravaggio, and that almost overbearing sensuality is the movie’s trump card both within the narrative — the characters seem to buckle under the lushness of the world — and for the audience.

Powell, the subversive fantasist of British cinema, later referred to “Narcissus’’ as “my most erotic film,’’ and he wasn’t kidding: It still holds the power to shock. I haven’t seen the Blu-Ray version but I imagine Cardiff’s palette and the characters’ jack-in-the-box passions might almost be too vivid in the format.

Also from Criterion: Two more early films by Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese Zen master of family dysfunction and cosmic acceptance. “The Only Son’’ (1936), Ozu’s first sound film, turns out to be one of his very best, an unadorned but intensely moving story of a factory-worker mother (Choko Iida) whose hopes for her son (Shinichi Himori) come crashing against the rocks of Depression-era Japan. “There Was a Father,’’ from 1942, tells a similar tale of self-sacrifice (Ozu mainstay Chishu Ryu plays the dad), but wartime censorship replaces the director’s usual understated grandeur with more simple-minded notions of filial and nationalist devotion. It’s not bad, but it’s not really Ozu. Still: Thanks, Criterion, and keep ’em coming.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

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