Monday, 26 September 2011

Get Thee to a Nunnery? No Thanks

Powell & Pressburger's Black Narcissus is set in a convent in India, and was filmed almost exclusively at Pinewood Studios.  Not a great deal of scope there for commentary on the social history of everyday people.  It is almost a Film Noir (except for the lavish colouring so typical of P & P) and is quite removed from ordinary life.

However, chief nun Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), does have flashbacks to a life before her vows, where we learn the reason for her dedicating herself to the Order.  Sister Clodagh, it turns out, lived in a small village and had a childhood sweetheart that everyone believed she would marry.  The man in question however made no promises and decided to emigrate to the US - without her.  The shame was so great that she went and took holy orders.

This is a totally unfeasible story to a modern woman, but the fact that it was used as a presumably credible storyline then makes me realise that the freedoms that I take for granted are only recently won.  Just a lifetime ago, society was so much more tightly laced morally - if not Victorian in its attitudes.  The implication in the film is that Clodagh brought shame and disappointment on her family by not getting her man.  If this kind of incident had happened in the present day, her parents would have heaved a sigh of relief that the waste of space she'd been pining after had left the area, leaving her free to concentrate on her studies and career.  Clodagh might have taken revenge by posting an embarrassing picture on Facebook, before moving on to a bright future - especially if she had the looks and intelligence of Deborah Kerr.  Or an even better outcome would be that there would be no bad feeling or shame at all, that this was just two people who liked each other, but not enough to marry. They would keep in touch via email and Facebook, before eventually drifting apart and finding their own way in life.

Right wing politicians are often going on about a return to old fashioned morals - like there was some halcyon day when everyone behaved according to a set of unspoken rules.  So this would be the sort of morals that meant that people had to marry someone that they didn't want to just to save reputations?  The sort of morals that meant jilted women were compelled to become nuns and waste their lives shut away somewhere?  The sort of morals where people had to stay married to someone that they didn't even like anymore?  Films like Black Narcissus - full of pent up frustration and anger - confirm my view that I'm actually rather glad that morality has gone to the dogs, thank you.

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