A community of nuns, belonging to the order of the servants of Mary in India, are offered the ex-pleasure palace of a local Raja and the opportunity of starting a mission in the Himalayas. They reach the highly inaccessible location filled with bright ideas: to start a school for the illiterate village children, open a dispensary for the disease-ridden natives, convert the whole load of peasants to Christianity.
Step-by-step, these plans fail to reach their fruition: the children receive bribes to go to the school and the child interpreter (for the nuns know no local language) teaches the class the words for weapons of war instead of peace, the villagers rise up against the medical aid offered when one of their offspring dies after a visit to the dispensary, the climate proves hostile, particularly in winter, and earthly love moves one of the nuns’ students to elope with a seductive nautch-girl rather than concentrate on his spiritual exercises. The final drop of wormwood in the soured milk is when one of the nuns has a nervous breakdown as a result of an unrequited crush for the cynical British agent in his sexy shorts, with cataclysmic results.
The nuns return, humbled but not bowed, from the wild and lonely place to the cities of the plains and one is left wondering at the end whether anything concrete was achieved by their moving to the mountains in the first place.
If you didn’t recognize the plot it’s that of one of the greatest and most visually stunning films of the British Cinema: Powell and Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus”, (the title comes from a perfume discovered and favoured by one of the nuns), based on the book by Rumer Godden (she of “The Greengage Summer”, “The Peacock Spring”, “The River” (titles beautifully adapted for film or TV) and many other highly readable (and highly under-rated) novels.
Re-watching this film last evening I was inclined to fantasise it as a possible metaphor for ex-pat communities throughout the world and in Bagni di Lucca in particular. Naturally, ex-pats, in no way form a community bound by vows of obedience, poverty and chastity like that order of misguided nuns but they are still, by default, a community joined together by certain features. Among these are a post-reformation ideology (except for many of Irish descent whose catholic background definitely eases them into Italian thought-processes), a lack of linguistic skills on a Dickensian level, a more expansive sense of social space (or distance?) between individuals, an inculcated sense that they are (were?) top dog, and a chartered accountant’s precision in returning favours for favours.
These, of course, are quite acceptable, culturally-relative, features but there are also other, more equivocal, ones that connect ex-pats with the “Black Narcissus” nuns: a propensity to laugh at (rather than be ashamed of) OTT inebriation, an inflated, impractical, idealism, and a hypocritical (or flawed) misunderstanding of social and sexual flirtation.
I have seen a considerable number of schemes proposed by ex-pats here – from a compendium of educational, artistic and recreational schemes to setting up a school of bagpipe playing to various therapeutic proposals. A few of them have succeeded, or at least, survived for a few years; others – the majority – have fallen by the wayside.
However, like the Himalayan nuns, all has not been lost: ex-pats may leave the area after a number of years for always, or they may stay on with reduced outlooks, but something of their thoughts and lives here always remains – like the Chiesa Inglese (or “Tempio degli Britannici”) of Bagni di Lucca, or the protestant cemetery(where in September, a string quartet concert will celebrate the restoration of the tomb of once-best-seller and animal-lover Ouida, or the Social Health centre named after the Clarke sisters (whose dispensary was locally appreciated) or the series of conference planned for mid-September by the organization named after the essayist and seeker of truth and gall-stone cures, Montaigne.
Whatever may happen let us hope that remaining ex-pats are not left hanging onto a bell-rope over the edge of a thousand-foot precipice, like Deborah Kerr, in the uncertain political and economic climate of Italy today.