Lilies of the Field

"The Most Extraordinary Story Ever Filmed!" Bold, but not necessarily untrue.
“The Most Extraordinary Story Ever Filmed!” Bold, but not necessarily untrue.

1963’s ‘Lilies of the Field,’ — sometimes referred to as (director) Ralph Nelson’s ‘Lilies of the Field’ just to remind you that it’s his and not anyone else’s– is mostly remembered for the fact that its lead actor, Sydney Poitier, won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the picture, making him the first African American to take home the Oscar. Aside from that, though, this film does not seem to have much of a legacy*. It rarely gets brought up on lists celebrating classic films, and I can’t even really say that it even has any sort of cult following to speak of. You may occasionally find someone who likes it as a nice, relatively innocuous, piece of entertainment** from a bygone era, but few seem to hold this movie up as anything remarkable. Not the way other films from its time, like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ have been, anyway. Indeed, if Poitier hadn’t gotten the Oscar for his (very excellent) performance, I feel this film might have slipped completely into the void, forever destined to be one of those movies that TCM shows at 2 in the afternoon on some random Thursday in the middle of February, and no one watching it is young enough or concerned enough to deduce how to look up its title.

That being the case, I’m glad that Poitier’s win brings at least some attention to the picture, and I hope that in time, ‘Lilies of the Field’ might get rediscovered as the classic it deserves to be seen as, because I really do feel that this is one of those rare films that gives people what they say they want out of film: living, breathing, genuine characters.

‘Lilies of the Field,’ first and foremost, is a quite vivid character study detailing the relationship between two very strong willed persons. One of them is Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), the head of a small group of German nuns who have come to inhabit a modest plot of desert in Arizona, and the other is Homer Smith, a traveling handyman whom Maria “hires” (she never winds up paying him, nor, it turns out, does she have the means or desire to) to fix the nuns’ roof and eventually compels to stay around afterwords. In a bit of direction that is remarkably efficient when compared to other movies, Nelson manages to establish within the first five minutes of the film the essence of who these characters are and what their relationship will be. Smith drives onto the nuns’ property, seeking water. Watching him work the water pump, Mother Maria, thanks God for sending her a strong man and tells Smith that she has a job for him, though she doesn’t exactly politely ask. Smith disregards Maria’s order and assures her he was not sent by God before nonchalantly driving off. He then stops for a moment to check the cash in his wallet, and he returns to Mother Maria, telling her he’ll gladly work for her, provided she’ll pay. She pauses briefly– our first indication she lives by faith and faith alone, money be damned– before quickly agreeing.

From this one scene, we get all we really need to know about our characters: Mother Maria is a woman of immense faith, but also quite proud in her beliefs, to the extent that she can not directly ask Smith for his help; while Smith is a kind man, but also proud in his work and not inclined to get cheated. Both are individuals dealing, to some extent, with conceit, and the main thrust of the story will expand on these characteristics and show both having to let go of a little of that hubris in order to grow.

Smith never gets paid for his work on the roof, or for anything else he ends up doing for the nuns. Mother Maria, through what can only be described as shear force of personality, manages to keep Smith around for several weeks, during which he marginally improves the German nuns’ English skills and even drives them weekly to church. Eventually she tells him her ultimate plan: he will build for them (and the surrounding Catholic community) a chapel. During none of this does Mother Maria ever formally ask him or bother to thank him, she simply declares that her ambitions for Smith will be a reality, and Smith, despite protesting, ends up reluctantly agreeing to comply. Though frustrated, and despite occasionally threatening to leave them, Smith cannot quite compel himself to walkout on these nuns. He learns of their journey from across the Berlin Wall (Commies!) to the United States and becomes more sympathetic to their plight. Gradually, he grows closer to them, becoming friendlier with them, teaching them hipper religious songs than they are accustomed to, and finding part time work in order to support himself and the nuns (who can not really afford to feed him), all the while trying to build their chapel.

What’s really remarkable, as far as the craft of film goes, about this part of the film is how well you get to know the characters, and how palpable the tension between Smith and Mother Maria becomes. We never hear much about Smith’s life prior to the events of the movie– only that he’s poor and never had much opportunity– but Poitier’s performance is so rich in nuances, so convincing and emotional in its delivery that he becomes immediately familiar, like we’ve known him all our lives. His frustration becomes our frustration. Skala, though never receiving much praise for her role, works wonders as well, but in a different capacity. She really nails the cold hearted exterior that Mother Maria projects onto the rest of the world. While both are proud individuals, it’s worth noting Mother Maria is clearly the aggressor in this relationship. She seems to constantly badger Smith, dealing in demands rather than requests, and never showing a bit of gratitude towards all that he’s done for her, a point that really begins to wear on him. In a veritable salt-in-the-wound moment, after Smith has bought the nuns groceries from his own money, she declares she will thank God for this, and not him. By comparison, Smith seems much more sympathetic. He may be a little hot-headed, and he has his own issues with pride, but in general he is clearly portrayed as a nice, generous guy who wants to help these nuns but is starting to grow quite weary of Maria’s treatment of him.

The tension between these two reaches explosive heights in a genuinely masterful scene: Smith has run out of materials on the chapel (something Maria promised she would obtain through donations but has had little luck with, much to her dismay and frustration), and when confronting her about this and for never showing appreciation for his service to her, she explodes at him. In a quite remarkable, well acted, well written and well directed moment, she unleashes a truly impressive diatribe about her faith, the hardships she and the other nuns endured to come to this place, and the meager living they now squeeze out of the surrounding wasteland. She declares she has gotten this this far for her faith and she owes Smith nothing, while also demanding that he not get in the way of her and what she views as the will of God. It’s a really outstanding performance, and you would think nothing could top it, but this monumental attack from Mother Maria then proceeds to get out matched by Poitier’s Smith. During all of this Smith has just stood there, taking in Maria’s accusations and demands, we can see by the look in his eyes (which Poitier really sells) that he has finally reached his breaking point, and after she finishes he proceeds to denounce–with an air of such righteous authority as I have never seen before or since from an actor– Maria’s view on faith and her rationalized cruelty, accuses her of being like Hitler at a time before the Internet completely ruined that comparison, and storms off in candid fury, leaving, it seems, for good; his closing words, “You just get yourself another boy,” still hanging in the air. This scene, I feel, is why Poitier won his Oscar.

This is of paramount significance to the film, and it works for two reasons: the first is that the scene is, in and of itself, a fine example of writing, direction, and good performances combining wonderfully. In that sense it is enjoyable as an island unto itself. The second reason, and more important to the movie as a whole, is how it really feels like the culmination of all the narrative build up from earlier in the film. The pacing and drive of the entire first half of the film– the way it immediately introduces us to the central tension and organically let’s that tension grow to a final, impassioned climax– is what really makes this long-awaited confrontation between Maria and Smith so poignant and charged. It’s that Nelson and Co. spent their time gradually building these characters and allowing us to really understand them that this critical scene feels so natural, fulfilling, and ultimately inevitable. No part of that build up was rushed, nor, at any time, was the plot ever diverted to anything less significant the way some films do. It represents pure, masterful focus on the part of Nelson and the writers.

The rest of the film, which I view as the falling action from the climax, details the aftermath of Smith and Maria’s confrontation. Smith is gone for several weeks, during which time we see indications that Mother Maria truly begins to realize her role in driving him off. The nuns struggle to cope in Smith’s absence and you really see the void he has left behind. Then one day, out of the blue, he returns–the movie seems to hint that he went somewhere south and spent most of the time partying– and resumes work on the chapel, with Maria being visibly more grateful for his presence (though she still can not bring herself to thank him).

It’s during this time that the movie gives us a minor subplot and character expansion for Smith. Eventually materials and volunteer workers do come to aid construction on the chapel. Smith accepts the building supplies, but desiring to finish the chapel himself, initially refuses the assistance of the other volunteers, though ultimately he can not keep them off the building site. Overwhelmed by the workers taking over the project, Smith retreats indoors, alone with Mother Maria. He tells her that he has never accomplished anything huge in his life before, and he wanted to finish the chapel on his own as a way for him to leave his mark on the world. In a clever (but not quite as impactful) inversion of the climactic scene from earlier, it is Maria (having learned something of humility during Smith’s absence) who now (politely) calls Smith out on his arrogant behavior at this time, telling him the chapel was never his to begin with, after which Smith accepts the help from others and guides them to completion on the chapel.

While not utterly key to the narrative, I think this subplot, with its themes and this reversal scene in particular, are highly beneficial to the story. First, it expands on Homer Smith’s character and his motivations; second, it helps highlight the ways in which Smith and Maria are similar (both are proud about the chapel) and the ways in which they differ (they are proud about it in different ways); third, and it also reinforces the message that both ultimately must learn to let go of their respective conceits. Earlier I said that Maria was clearly the aggressor in her relationship with Homer, and that it made her less sympathetic overall, and I still mean that; nevertheless, the film does emphasize a duality in these characters– each having admirable and not-so-admirable characteristics– that makes for a more complex, worthwhile narrative.

The final moments of the film play out like consummate poetry: Maria, grateful for all that Smith has done though still too proud to ask him outright to stay, tries to find more work on the chapel for Smith to do as a means of keeping him around, but Smith assures her that all work has been completed. As Smith leads the nuns in an English lesson (echoing a similar scene from the first night he stayed with them) he finally tricks Mother Maria into saying, “Thank You,” to him. Having finally received some gratitude for his work, Smith starts the nuns off on song, during which he slips out of their home and prepares to depart; all the while Maria sits quietly, knowing he is leaving but too proud to say anything. Smith takes one final look at the chapel– and all that it represents for him and Mother Maria– utters a final Hallelujah to complete the song, and drives off, disappearing, leaving forever, into the night.

And that, folks, is how you handle characters. Few films I’ve seen have ever accomplished what ‘Lilies of the Field’ makes look easy: a brilliant introduction, growth and fulfillment of character in cinematic story telling. It’s defined, paced, and concluded perfectly, and, even if this film had no other merits to boast than that, it would still be a verifiable classic.

Thankfully, there’s a lot more to praise this film for, from a simple but beautiful rural-influenced score by Jerry Goldsmith, to memorable supporting characters, to a crisp, clean visual sense and cinematographic approach that black and white films (which this film is) really seem to excel at over their color counterparts. I could delve into these, but I’m already passed 2300 words on this thing, so let’s rap this up.

Well, one more thing: given all the nuns and chapel building I should at least comment on the religious nature of the film. Obviously the plot specifics and imagery in the film are geared towards Christians at large and Catholics in particular. But I don’t really think the movie beats you over the head with its religiousness. Rather, I’d say it encourages people of different faiths and backgrounds (Smith is Black Baptist, the nuns are German Catholic, and volunteers on the chapel are mostly Hispanic) to work together, see the need for the common good irrespective of views about the divine, and learn to appreciate others and be kind to others regardless of who we are or what we believe in particular. Put another way, to paraphrase Jor-El in ‘Man of Steel,’***, the film reminds us that every person can be a force for good. I think we can all get behind that. Now, on to the end.

As a genuine character study, I feel that ‘Lilies of the Field,’ has earned a spot among the great movies of all time. It has an intensity all its own, and I believe it sets a great example for young auteurs to follow. It is a personal favorite mine, and I hope that this review/analysis might encourage a few of you to check it out. And if word gets around, maybe it’ll help keep this movie out of obscurity, and, if we’re lucky, maybe put it on a prime time slot on TCM every once in a while.

*I should mention this film did have a weird television sequel in 1979. It was again directed by Nelson, this time with a pre-‘Empire Strikes Back,’ Billy Dee Williams as Homer Smith; and the chronology appears to just jump from the early 60’s to the late 70’s. It’s supposed to be set at Christmas time and have Smith returning to the nuns and building a school for them. I have only seen part of this film (it’s not legally online in its totality and physical media copies of it are quite rare and expensive), and it might very well be cute, but the very premise of it seems to undermine the poetry of the original.

**Innocuous as it may be, I can’t imagine this film being made–even on a low scale independent budget– in the modern era. Film depictions of Catholics are now largely restricted to exorcisms, Vatican conspiracies, and child abuse. In the last ten years or so, I actually don’t remember if I’ve seen a positive depiction of Catholics that didn’t involve them ripping demons out of people’s bodies.

***We’ll get to that movie soon.

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