Monday 7 December 2020

Cult Cinema #31: Counting to Nun, Part 1

So. Let's talk about nuns.

Unlike evangelical expressions of Christianity, Catholicism (specifically Roman Catholicism, to differentiate it from the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion, all of which claim to be in some way “Catholic”) is at least more or less stable. As an established Christian church with a history of being a church of state, the Catholic church can’t really be defined as a cult. But anyone paying attention knows that it has its own particular vectors for abuse of power and cult-like behaviour. Horrific abuse scandals — of the most nightmarish kind — seem to arise periodically, or perhaps more correctly, never go away.

The one axis of cultic strangeness in Catholicism that perhaps most grabs people’s imaginations is the nun. Cenobites — that is, monks, nuns and hermits — have been part of Catholic culture for a very long time, and the media surrounding them has had an edge of strangeness and violence for as long as they have existed. When the Church was first normalised and integrated into the Roman state in the fourth century, the most popular form of literature among Christians were martyrologies, the stories of people who had died in creatively horrible ways at the hands of persecuting authorities. Part atrocity literature, part romance, part horror story, part propaganda, tales of martyrdom caught imaginations and were in constant demand. But martyrs had already gone out of fashion by the time that the stories of their deaths became really popular, and so a new sort of Christian hero had to be discovered.

The original cenobites withdrew from society, either alone or in some sort of community, and through meditation, self-discipline, mortification, chastity, poverty and obedience, found both God and the admiration of the Christian public. The first of them withdrew to lone hermitages or communities in the Egyptian desert. The stories of the torments that they put themselves through in their lonely cells, compiled in the Vitae Patrum, the compilation of these biographies, are often breathless and prurient. And sometimes they are a very early form of body horror.

I could mention the story of Tha├»s here, for example. A courtesan, bullied into repentance, is bricked into a room for three years, explicitly with her own piss and shit, and at the end it is explained to her that it is not the pain and deformation she undergoes that creates her miracle — it’s a vision — it is her own self-denial and self-hatred. Or the story of Pelagia, the theatre actress, who turns from her life of opulent pleasures and fame, insults Satan to his face and vanishes, to resurface in a hermitage by Jerusalem, so twisted and damaged by her self-mortification that she is thought to be a wizened old man.

As history went on, the female cenobite developed into a figure of wonder and fear. Often described as a “Bride of Christ”, the nun was seen in a very different way to the figure of the monk, who is often described in literature as being in some way earthy, and corruptible, and inevitably given more depth of character. The obsession with nuns that stretches to the modern day always seems to have something sexual to it. In denying objectification and sexualisation, the habit has actually become a fetish object in its own right (the rubber nun costume is an indispensable part of the BDSM wardrobe, after all). The 2020 Netflix series Warrior Nun, based on the 90s “good girl” comic book Warrior Nun Areala, takes it a step further, by giving us an order of kick-ass demon-hunting nun-assassins with some solid queer coding.

In the popular imagination, the male celibate divine is a repressed homosexual, and possibly even a paedophile (a perception that frankly isn’t helped by the seemingly endless string of reports about priestly sexual abuse). The abusive priest or monk abuses the laypeople. There are plenty of allegations, reports and fictions about nuns abusing vulnerable charges — we’ve looked at The Magdalene Sisters, and I might also mention the splendidly histrionic turns of Jessica Lange and Lily Rabe as the keepers of the terrible mental hospital in American Horror Story: Asylum (2012). But a not-inconsiderable number of the media featuring nuns has them abusing each other, and losing the plot on a personal level. Male celibates are portrayed as sending their abuse outward. But when a nun goes wrong, the abuse goes in both directions.

Black Narcissus

The classic cinematic depiction of nuns losing the plot must surely be in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 adaptation of the Rumer Godden novel Black Narcissus. Here the angle of conflict comes from being outside of the realm of control. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) is made sister superior of a new school and hospital mission which is to be set up in Mopu Palace, a former seraglio, high in the Himalayas. Their go-between is the earthy and irreverent but nonetheless friendly Mr Dean (David Farrar), the British agent to the local Rajput General (Esmond Knight). Dean speaks his mind and quite often goes shirtless, creating tension simply by being there. He warns Clodagh that it’s not going to go easy. Tensions rise.

But it’s the environment in general that really creates the tension. It’s almost as if the atmosphere of the harem building has somehow infected the place: there are erotic paintings on the walls, and the sky and colours are clear and bright.  Powell and Pressburger create a world so richly saturated that even when everything in the shot is in some shade of brown or grey, it still somehow looks like you’re watching a rainbow. Everything is Technicolor, and you get the feeling that it is for the Sisters too.

They begin to disintegrate. Diligent Sister Priscilla (Flora Robson), the gardener, plants flowers where the vegetable patches should be. Steady, hale Sister Briony (Judith Furse) falls ill. Sister Blanche (Jenny Laird), so sweet-natured that the others call her “Sister Honey”, endangers the whole mission by giving medicine to a dying child, who dies, leading the locals to turn against the nuns. Clodagh herself becomes increasingly distracted by flashbacks to her life before taking her vows and the heartbreak that led her into the arms of the Church. But most of all, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), develops an obsession with Dean, and her behaviour becomes more and more erratic, eventually leading to an attempted murder and her own death.

Let’s be honest, parts of Black Narcissus have not aged well. There’s a fair amount of brownface in this movie (most egregiously in the case of Jean Simmons as the orphan girl Kanchi), and a view of Indian nationals that is at best fairytale and orientalist — Dean says that the locals are “like children” early on, and when Clodagh rebukes him for that, he says, “Don’t you like children?” and that’s not really fair. The lonely, silent sadhu who sits at the edge of the estate without moving or making any pronouncement might turn out to be the General’s Uncle but is still basically an Indian stereotype.

If the “exotic mysteries of the East” were the reason for the nuns’ disintegration, Black Narcissus would, for all that it’s one of the most beautifully filmed British movies of all time, probably not have much to say. But what makes the story so beautifully phrased is that the hints are plainly laid out that the nuns were going to go wrong anyway. When Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts) gives Clodagh her mission, she says quite plainly that she doesn’t think that Clodagh has the ability to handle it. Clodagh expresses doubts about Sister Ruth right from the beginning, and so does the Mother Superior, and in fact it’s because Ruth’s commitment is at breaking point that she’s packed off to the mission with the other, more competent sisters. The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi present a contrast to the nuns in their spontaneity and freedom to act on their desires — they run away together, in fact, playing the part of Prince and Beggar Maid — but all they do is present to the nuns who they are anyway. The perfume on the Young General’s handkerchief that so disturbs Ruth is called Black Narcissus, but he got it from the Army and Navy Stores, in London. It’s not a signifier of the “exotic East”, it’s as much a reminder of the life outside the convent that Ruth left behind as the earthy, straight-talking Englishman Dean is. When Ruth abandons the habit, dons a red dress and slowly puts on bright red lipstick, she is more incongruous to the place than even the nuns are. She is going back to the West, because it’s the internalised West that is breaking them.

The precipitous chasm overlooked by the mission bell, with the stomach-churning drop right next to the rope, is the chasm they could all fall into, and when Ruth, transformed from a nun to an incompetent femme fatale and then finally into a haggard, red-eyed, raw-boned avatar of jealousy who looks like nothing else in British cinema, tries to throw the woman she thinks has stolen her man from into the void, it is inevitable that it’s she who falls right in. Clodagh admits she is very like Ruth — and it is evident she is not blind to Dean’s charms either, nor he to her — but the difference is that Clodagh is more mature and able to synthesise her own past heartbreak in a way that Ruth isn’t.

The difference just gives them a venue for their breakdown. The nuns are blind to it. They talk about how there’s something in the atmosphere, the sound of the wind, the view, the chasm behind the palace, its “strange atmosphere and new people”, and they miss that the issue was in them all along. They cry out that Sister Ruth has gone mad, but at no point in the movie is she stable (to quote Kier-La Janisse in House of Psychotic Women, p222: “After all, Ruth is nuts whether or not she’s wearing the dress, and this much has been obvious to the audience ever since her first moment onscreen.”). None of the sisters can admit this. In the habit, she’s one of them. And they are all falling apart; it’s easy to be a faithful sister when you’re surrounded by loads of other people who are also behaving in an orthodox manner to reinforce you — remember that all the things we believe are really brainwashing, and brainwashing is a method of social control — but when you are cast into an alien environment, you are forced to look outward, and looking outward forces you to look inward, too.