Lilies of the Field: Review
The film that garnered Sidney Poitier an Academy Award is a gem of a picture that proves that small stories can make great movies. Even tremendous ones. From the very beginning of Lilies of the Field everything about it endears itself to the viewer.
I love this film. I can watch it again and again and again, and never tire of it. It’s funny and sweet, and even has a show-stopping musical moment you’ll have stuck in your head long after the credits roll, and it’s sung by Poitier (well, sort of). But most of all it is extremely entertaining. A lot of films from the ‘60s focus on political or social issues, but Lilies makes no mention of politics, race or creed, other than noting that the main character is not of the same faith as the people he ends up helping. Rather amazing since one character is a black, male, Southern Baptist and the other is a white, catholic nun from behind the wall of East Germany, who meet in the predominantly Hispanic South West. Director Ralph Nelson never panders to these hot button topics. He doesn’t even hint by way of direction or composition, because it is not necessary to tell the story.
This story is about people who look beyond their own needs and beyond reason to help each other out, and the results that follow. This story is about ordinary people of strong character who through generosity of spirit realize accomplishments greater than themselves. To do this you need strong actors who play well together, and Lilies brings together one of the all time best duos ever to bring out the best in each other in the history of movies.
First of all you’ve got Poitier starring as Homer Smith, a vagabond man who lives out of his station wagon in search of handy work and new places to see. Instantaneously we know who this man is based on our assumptions about Poitier, the most likable actor since Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. His persona, while versatile, is as much a trademark as any of the great personalities of the silver screen. Just as you know what to expect from Gary Cooper or Tom Hanks, you know what you’re getting from Poitier. And his acting is so natural and effortless it’s easy to believe him in any role. Even though Homer is a regular guy we already know he is capable of extraordinary things, and he represents the ideal man every one wishes they could be. With Poitier, the audience immediately identifies with the hero and has empathy for his character.
You also have Lilia Skala who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress as Mother Maria. Although not as well known as Poitier, Skala still has an instantaneous identification through her physical attributes. Her manner is as harsh as her speech, her ways are as simple as her appearance, and her determination is as hearty as her body. But what could have been a mere caricature with a lesser actress becomes a fully formed and complicated woman in the hands of the impressive Skala. She may not be the name star, but she certainly holds her own while sparring with Poitier, which happens in virtually every scene of the film.
Within seconds of the opening credits Homer stops for some water for his car and Mother Maria takes it as a sign from heaven that her prayers for manual help have been answered. In an underplayed moment Skala convincingly conveys an overwhelming relief of her request having been fulfilled. And there begins the conflict, because Homer is just as sure that he was only passing by. But, in a moment of weakness, he stays to do some odd jobs. But Mother Maria is a very willful woman who time and again manages to keep Homer against his better judgement, which frustrates him to no end.
Ultimately, after many set backs and resistances, arguments and manipulations, hurt feelings and guilty consciences, Homer accomplishes the goal much to everyone’s mutual pleasure. Mother Maria gets a chapel, and Homer has something of permanence in his life. Perhaps most surprising is the bond that has grown between the two. Though they bickered every step of the way they were cast from the same metal, and now hold a special kind of respect for one another, one that will last a lifetime if only in memory.
I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but suffice it to say it’s difficult to imagine a more satisfying ending to this film than the one that already exists. It’s clever, funny and sad all at the same time. Most likely you’ll be smiling with a tear in your eye as you realize it’s been awhile since a movie left you feeling this good. Watch it once and I know you will want to see it again and again. I promise you’ll feel good every single time.