The ample joys of Lilies of the Field come out of it being a kind of modern-day parable. It’s a modest and simple story, shot over 15 days by director Ralph Nelson, with a source novel gaining inspiration from the passage of the Christian scripture:
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
It means different things for our two leads, one who keeps a handy pocket edition for easy travel and the other with a giant tome of a Bible ready to quash everything around it. The image becomes a pertinent one.
Because the film itself concerns itself with an itinerant handyman played by Sidney Poitier. His car is sputtering so he stops by the nearest establishment to get some water for his thirsty engine: it happens to be cared for by a troop of Nuns.
He wants to get out of their sphere of influence as soon as possible. They hardly speak a lick of English. They are Catholic and he is Baptist. And yet he finds himself doing work for them. At first, it’s hardly out of altruism but they are a persistent bunch.
Their leader, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), has grand visions about what Homer Schmidt (Smith) can do for them thanks to his pair of strong arms. She’s resolute that God will build them a “shapel” and Homer is the readymade conduit.
Of course, he has no such ideas, and he’s interested solely in a buck. He’s ready to do one job for them, get a meal, and then move on with his life. Remember these were the early 60s. Poitier later in the decade would come off stately. He was a doctor, a police officer, a teacher. Here there’s a freedom and playfulness to his movements indicative of a different kind of man.
If there’s any major development to the movie it’s how they slowly teach one another something. Homer comes to understand what it is to slow down, to be present, and to bless other people with your skills. These sisters want nothing more than a place of worship, and he can give them so much. But it’s not just a selfish act of individuality and pride either. It becomes something when others join in to help finish what he began.
However, the Mother is a stern and unyielding lady in her own right. She believes in God’s daily Providence but sometimes at the expense of the human beings around her. She sees them only as tools in God’s plan rather than fellow human beings worthy of thanks and appreciation. Over time she too softens and admires Homer for the monumental thing he has accomplished.
Because ultimately he does bring their dream to fruition. He’s got the dogged resolve to make them their chapel, not because of monetary gain but just because he can. As alluded to already, it begins as a mission of self-aggrandizement.
Both Homer and the Mother can bear a little humbling, and yet in their corner of the world, they see some marvelous things. Homer uses his ingenuity to become the contractor for the project as the local members of the sisters’ parish help finish the building.
Although it’s not a movie of means, it makes up for it with heart and performance. On first look, it seems rather surprising the movie would be such an award boon for Poitier, and yet there’s something warm and appealing about his characterization. Years later there’s still something more to it. There’s a freedom and an energy imbued in him.
He can be exuberant with his shirt off, then badgered and forbearing. They feel like universally human traits that we can understand and relate to. The singing of “Amen” reverberates throughout the movie even if Jester Hairston’s resounding voice sounds nothing like Poitier.
Others like the affable bartender (Stanley Adams) are pragmatic when it comes to issues of faith, the local priest on wheels (Dan Frazer) isn’t overly pious, but he seems a decent human being with genuine aspirations and honest shortcomings. The one other solitary white man (Ralph Nelson himself), a local contractor, seems like he could represent a hedge of racism (Using the word “Boy”), but Poitier fires right back and readily treats him as an equal. They too form a mutual understanding even as he marvels at Homer’s accomplishments. He feels indispensable and Poitier certainly is for the movie.
Except for a rather conspicuous English lesson early on explaining what the colors “white” and “black” mean, from vinyl records to his skin tone, no reference to Poitier’s race is needed. It occurs to me this film, set out in the rural desert, feels like a tale of cultural outsiders, and if not outsiders then at least characters who rarely received Hollywood treatment in the ’60s. We have a black handyman, a parish of European nuns, and then a host of Latino workers.
They couldn’t be more disparate, and yet somehow their ecosystem comes together and blossoms. Whether it’s a shared sense of faith or even a basic human understanding, they gather together and create something beautiful. I can only imagine that this is part of what drew Poitier to such an unassuming picture. Today it still stands modestly alongside some of his best performances.