Lilies of the Field comes storming out of 1963 in glorious black and white, addressing the issues of the day with disarming subtlety and introducing us to a wayfaring handyman/contractor eager to leave his mark on an uncaring, often biased world.
Not a lot of time is spent on this inherent bigotry as Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is running low on money, gas, and water as he crosses the Southwest on his way to a promised land where work is plentiful and money grows on trees.
During a random stop and a chance encounter with a troop of Austrian-German nuns with a backstory of their own, Smith – or “Schmidt” as he comes to be known to this dusty convent, is drafted by Mother Superior Lilia Skala to help the nuns build a chapel for the largely Mexican community living in the surrounding area.
Smith’s skills are put to the test as the nuns’ wish for a “schapel” are held up by their vow of poverty and Smith’s desire for an American breakfast, so much so that he takes himself off their construction project to go to work as a heavy equipment operator for a local contractor. The side gig has benefits the nuns enjoy as Smith uses his paycheck to buy groceries, leading them in kitchen table sing-alongs aimed at teaching them English – the food and jocularity leaving Mother Superior unimpressed as work on her chapel stalls and then ceases completely.
James Poe’s screenplay, based on a story by William E. Barrett, is economical and funny when he needs humor to make his point. Poitier’s comedic timing is en point throughout.
Skala’s Mother Superior plays strongly against Poitier’s loosely charming handyman. She is squad leader, executive and a woman of God and all qualities emerge onscreen. As her small community, Lisa Mann, Isa Crino, Francesca Jarvis and Pamela Branch, all provide heavily accented but universally recognized moments of humor and pathos. Stanley Adams delivers as a friendly atheist and community liaison; Dan Frazer plays the nomadic, tippling priest in search of a congregation and director Ralph Nelson even steps into a minor role.
Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is low-key but proves to be the perfect counterpoint to a disarmingly slow-paced storyline and a construction project charmingly hijacked by a squad of willing townspeople. Particularly effective is his use of various musical genres, including hymns, and weaving them into the story.
OUR RECOMMENDATION: Stream it. The film was nominated for five Oscars at the 36th Academy Awards, with Poitier winning for best actor.
WHY WE LIKED IT: An everyman’s tale. A chance stop along a dusty desert road. A random encounter. A young man sees a chance to leave his mark on an unforgiving world. A simple story with pure motivations and stripped-down acting.
GOOD LINES: “God ain’t gonna get behind this counter and sling hash.”