Monday, October 26, 2009

Lillies of the Field

Lillies of the Field (1963) was directed by Ralph Nelson and starred Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala.

Sidney Poitier was nominated and won both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Actor.

Lilia Skala was nominated for both the Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

The film was also nominated for an academy award for Best Picture.

An unemployed construction worker, Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) heading out west stops at a remote farm in the desert to get water when his car overheats. The farm is being run by a group of East European Catholic nuns, headed by the strict Mother Maria(Lilia Skala), who believes that Homer has been sent by God to build a much needed church in the desert.

Homer Smith is persuaded to do a small roofing repair by Mother Maria. He stays overnight, believing that he will be paid in the morning. In fact, the nuns have no money and subsist only by living off the land, on what vegetables the arid climate provides, and some milk and eggs. Even after being stalled/stonewalled when asking for payment, and after being persuaded to stay for a meal, and against his better judgment, Smith agrees to stay another day to help them with other small jobs, always with the faint hope that Mother Maria, the head nun will settle with him.

Soon, the weekend is upon them, and Smith offers to give the nuns a ride to Sunday service so they do not have to make the long trip on foot as they usually are required to do. He is invited to attend Catholic mass, but declines because he is a Baptist and not very religious. Instead, he takes the opportunity to get proper breakfast (the nun's had been only feeding him a single egg for breakfast) from the service station/cafe/store adjacent to where the religious service is held. In talking to the proprietor Juan (Stanley Adams) Smith learns about the hardships that the nuns, led by the unyielding Mother Maria, overcame in order to emigrate from Eastern Europe -- over the Berlin Wall.

Despite the unlikelihood of his ever getting paid for his work and partly out of respect for all the order has overcome, Smith stays longer and finds himself driven to work further on at least clearing the construction site for the chapel. He rationalizes that it would be too hard for the women of the order to move the heavy beams and so he is willing to do at least this much for them.

To earn money to buy some "real food" to supplement the spartan diet the nuns are able to provide him, Smith gets a part-time job with the nearby construction contractor, Mr. Ashton (Ralph Nelson).

To pass the evenings, Smith teaches the nuns some basic English and even joins them in singing.

At one point, after losing a Bible-quoting duel with Mother Maria where he attempted to prove the point that she should settle with him, he finally agrees to undertake the job of building them a chapel.

Smith, determined that the building will be constructed to the highest standards, insists that work be done by him and only him. As word spreads about the endeavor, locals begin to show up to give materials and to help in construction, but Smith rebuffs all offers of assistance in the labor. The locals find minuscule ways to lend a hand which cannot be easily turned down - (ie: the lifting of a bucket or brick to an elevated Smith). Once the process is in motion, they end up doing as they intended and as Smith tried in vain to resist, assisting in every aspect of the construction in addition to contributing materials. This greatly accelerates the progress, much to the delight of everyone but Smith. Smith finds himself sitting on the sidelines watching the locals build "his chapel."

Even Ashton, who had long ignored Mother Maria's pleas, finds an excuse to deliver some more materials, and almost overnight, Smith soon rejoins the project and finds that he's become a building foreman and contractor. Smith brings the chapel, finally, to completion. Signing his name in the cement below the cross on top of the chapel.

This is a charming black and white film based on dialogue and the characters. The characterizations in this film are wonderful and deep. There is a strain of stubbornness in both Mother Superior and Homer Smith. It is a miracle they are able to work together. At one point in the film, Smith disappears for weeks leaving the chapel unfinished. However, he returns looking like he had been on a drinking binge, hungover and in a Hawaiian shirt.

The film centers on the battle of wills between Mother Maria and Homer Smith with race and faith closely in the background. Another aspect of the film is the growth of the characters, Homer Smith and Mr. Ashton.

There is a racial edge to this film. Smith is black, and the nuns are white. Juan and the members of the community are Hispanic. Father Murphy is white. Ultimately, all of these people come together to build the chapel. One point in the film where race becomes overt is when Homer Smith meets Mr. Ashton. "Hey boy", he says to Smith. Smith quickly turns the tables on Ashton and calls him "boy". In another scene Smith compares Mother Superior to Hitler. Later, Mother Superior compares Smith to Hitler.

A perfect example of the racial edge in this film are the following quotes:

Mother Maria (ringing the dinner bell) Schmidt! Schmidt!

Homer Smith: Old Mother gonna feed the slaves


Homer Smith (talking with the hispanics at the Fiesta) "Gringo? I don't know if that's a step up or a step down from some other things I've been called."

Mother Maria never loses faith that the chapel will be built. Even when they run out of materials, she knows somehow materials will arrive, she puts her trust in God.

The bible quoting duel between Mother Maria and Homer Smith is one of the most compelling scenes in the movie.

Homer Smith quotes Luke 10:7 "The laborer is worthy of his hire," but Mother Maria responds with a verse saying, "Look at the lillies of the filed, they continue to appear beautiful even though they get no payment. The bloom is to honor God, but not to get paid for their work."

This is a delightful film and I highly recommend it.

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