Lilies of the Field is Sidney Poitier’s finest film, as evidenced by his becoming the first African-American man to win the Best Actor Oscar. A simple story of faith and hard work, Lilies of the Field depicts ecumenical fellowship, community rallying, and a memorable call-to-meetin’ gospel song that is nearly synonymous with the film itself.
There are many atypical film pairs—old and young (Up), hot shot and mad scientist (Back to the Future), black and Chinese (Rush Hour)—but an unusual dynamic is formed here between a black Baptist and a Catholic nun. Homer Smith/Schmidt is a hard-working traveler whose wish for payment becomes a desire to prove his value and consequence, while Mother Maria is a stubborn German matriarch whose faith in God alone is so strong that she neglects God’s chosen means. Both are admirable in their own way—Smith’s skill and diligence, Maria’s ascetic convictions—and both have their flaws—Smith’s impatience, Maria’s obstinate single-mindedness. Despite her asperity, Maria is never too overbearing, since Homer could have departed at any time, and ultimately her prayers are answered while Homer achieves a bit of unanticipated permanence that leaves him satisfied.
From the potentially creepy opening (with the nuns following Smith’s car), to a Tower-of-Babel moment in which he takes charge, to Smith’s eventual departure, the entire film feels like merely an extended stop on Smith’s wayward journey. Though he resists at first, his good-natured assistance with the nuns’ English lessons belies an eagerness to help. Nothing is said of him personally, where he came from or where he’s going, and his presence certainly seems heaven-sent. He’s quite human, prone to drink and doubt, yet he and the community at large fulfill the nuns’ every need in realistic ways that indicate an unseen Hand of benevolence, as reflected by the film’s title based on Matthew 6:28-33. After all, one need not be a saint to be used of God.
Though the talented Jerry Goldsmith provided the score, the film’s musical highlight is the hymn “Amen,” sung by the nuns and the song’s composer Jester Hairston, who provided the vocals for tone-deaf Poitier. It really is a joy to see Baptists and Catholics together belting out a rousing hymn of praise. It’s the high point of a true classic, one of my favorite black-and-white films.
Best line: (Homer Smith, after being served one egg) “That’s a Catholic breakfast, ain’t it?”Rank: 57 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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