Thursday, March 1, 2012

Lilies of the Field (1963)

It has been a long-standing notion in cinema to romanticize the idea of the drifter. The mysterious, aimless, underachiever strolls into a new town and is exposed to a new set of cultural rules and customs. Furthermore, the idea of unparalleled independence is something that appeals to everybody at some point or another. Lilies of the Field explores those concept in a big way.

The 1963 film, directed by Ralph Nelson, is based off a 1962 book of the same name by William Edmund Barrett. James Poe adapted the novel for the screen. It stars Sidney Potier and Lilia Skala, who, in the film, could not be more different from each other.

The film opens with Homer Smith, played by Potier, driving into an Arizona farm in need of water for his car. The farm happens to be inhabited by a group of East German nuns, headed by Mother Maria, (Skala) and four other sisters (Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis and Pamela Branch.) All Homer wants is to get some water so he could move on and find some work. He's a handyman, who travels from place to place with his box of tools, looking for whatever he can fix.

Believing that Homer was sent to them by God, the nuns first ask him if he could repair their leaking roof. Homer, a nice guy, obliges, but then wishes to leave and continue on his way. But the nuns are not going to let their "gift from God" get away so quickly. They have a bigger plan for him.

The first twenty-five minutes of Lilies of the Field plays off as a screwball comedy. Though they don't pay him money in return for his services, the nuns offer Homer food, kindness and shelter -- the latter of which he rejects. With the exception of the Mother Maria, the other four nuns can barely speak English, and dinner in the farm becomes language class, with Homer teaching them English. The interactions between the German nuns and Homer are extremely humorous, and really showcase Potier's ability to act. The showcase was exemplary enough, in fact, that it was able to net him the Oscar for the Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1964.

Homer tries hard to leave, but just can't leave the poor nuns behind. Finally, the plot thickens when Homer discovers what the nuns have in mind for him: they wish for him to build a chapel on their farm. The small Arizona town only boasts one "church", and it is located in the back of an RV. To get there each Sunday, the nuns, walk miles down the street in the swarming desert heat.

Sidney Potier and Lilia Skala in Lilies of the Field.
Homer is incredulous at first, but for the viewer, there is never any doubt what he is going to do. Throughout the film, Homer is constantly asking for money in return for his services. But it is not truly what he is after. Homer is seeking self-worth, value and redemption. When he finally agrees, to build a chapel, he wishes to do it himself, and only himself.

A main theme of Lilies of the Field is unity in the face of diversity. Homer, an African-American, is not a religious man, and yet, he bonds with the devout East German nuns. Though they are as different as can be, they don't question one another's practices -- quite the opposite. They respect one another. When Homer does embark on his mission to build the chapel, he enlists the help of a local bar proprietor named Juan (Stanley Adams), and his Latin American friends, adding another example of people of different cultures coming together for a common cause.

Naturally, the film does contain some religion, with Potier showing off his vocal ability and singing some religious hymns with the nuns. Some bible verses are read too. When Homer demands payment at first, he recites a verse, "The laborer is worthy of his hire," to which Mother Maria responds with another verse, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." And just like that, you have your title.

While Lilies of the Field may romanticize the drifter, it also romanticizes the idea of accomplishing something. It puts aside some of the material items in life that people value, namely money, and highlights some abstract qualities, like unity, respect and acceptance. With such a message, it is undoubtedly a movie that many people can learn a lot from.

~ Review by Ddubbs

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