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Nuns Go Nuts, Antonioni Paints Trees for Color Classics: Review

Deborah Kerr stars as a repressed nun in the Michael Power-Emeric Pressburger classic
Deborah Kerr stars as a repressed nun in the Michael Power-Emeric Pressburger classic "Black Narcissus." Jack Cardiff's mastery of Technicolor won him the 1947 Oscar for best cinematography. Source: Criterion Collection via Bloomberg

Nov. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Almost every modern film is shot in color, but not all are conceived in color. Two eye-popping DVD releases from Criterion, “Black Narcissus” and “Red Desert, demonstrate the difference.

“Black Narcissus” (1947), which won the Oscar for its cinematographer Jack Cardiff, is justly famous for its fervid painterliness. It’s equally renowned for its storyline, adapted from a Rumer Godden novel, about a group of repressed nuns (led by Deborah Kerr’s purse-lipped Sister Codagh) who go a bit batty establishing a convent high in the Himalayas. You can cut the sexual/spiritual tension with a knife -- in this case, a palette knife.

It’s possible to regard “Black Narcissus” as high-fructose kitsch and still marvel at how it dazzles the eye. Cardiff, who also shot “A Matter of Life of Death” (1946) and “The Red Shoes” (1948) for co-directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, was perhaps the greatest of all Technicolor artists. He shot many other movies, including John Huston’s “The African Queen,” but the style he developed with Powell and Pressburger is resplendent.

At his most flagrant, which is most of the time, Cardiff appears to be mixing his jujube colorations with squid ink. Nuns are perched like sentinels in the shadows; they look down from great heights into the dark valleys below. (Astonishingly, practically the entire film was shot on studio sets.)

Flaming Screen

The colors are tactile and yet always keyed to the characters’ heightened emotions. In one celebrated scene, nutty Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) is rebuffed by the resident Himalayan hunk (David Farrar). She stares at him and then, from her point of view, the screen flames to crimson.

The mini-documentary “Painting With Light,” a DVD extra about Cardiff, makes clear that he was a student of the great artists from his earliest days as a second-unit cameraman. “Black Narcissus” is flooded with imagery that calls up Caravaggio and Rembrandt and especially Vermeer. And yet the compositions are always dynamic, never static.

Michelangelo Antonioni and his cinematographer Carlo Di Palma didn’t merely create painterly images in “Red Desert” (1964). They actually took a paintbrush to the natural environment, to the trees and lawns, in an effort to heighten the mood. This was Antonioni’s first color film, and he wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

Starring Monica Vitti as Giuliana, the neurasthenic wife of an electronics engineer, “Red Desert” is perhaps the purest expression of Antonioni’s modernist alienation.

Alluring Color

I’ve never been altogether convinced that this film’s sweet agony of anomie isn’t simply high-tone twaddle. But from a visual standpoint, “Red Desert” is undoubtedly one of the most alluring color films ever made.

Unlike “Black Narcissus,” the color schemes are arrived at without ostentation. In the barren modern industrial world of “Red Desert,” the colors of plastic and metal are just as plangent as anything that grows from the soil.

The visual references to great paintings are even more voluminous than in “Black Narcissus.” Antonioni seems to take in everything -- not only the Old Masters but the Impressionists and Mondrian and Edward Hopper and everyone in between. It’s as if he was summoning up the entire history of Western art for us.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).

To contact the writer responsible for this story: Peter Rainer at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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