I knew next to nothing about Lilies of the Field (1963), and had never seen Sidney Poitier act. I was unexpectedly delighted on both counts. You more or less know the whole plot from the first moments, but how it plays out is a pleasure to see. It’s a sort of “stone soup” story, but it’s populated with real people, all more or less decent, but each with their individual character kinks to work out.
The plot: A cheerful, unattached fellow (Poitier) is driving through the Arizona desert and stops at a tiny, austere convent to fill up his radiator. The overbearing mother superior (Lilia Skala) persuades him to do a little work, and he quickly becomes unable to extricate himself from her grand plan to build a chapel despite having no money or materials. The five German nuns and the rest of ragged congregation need some place better than the back of a truck to celebrate Mass, and Mother Maria thinks Homer Smith, a black baptist, was sent by God to make it happen.
Mother Maria has a rock solid faith in God, but her life of struggle (only fleetingly alluded to) has made her hard as a rock, as well, and she doesn’t bend even when she should. When Homer, slowly resigning himself to see the project through, kindly turns up with cartons of groceries to feed the near-starving sisters, she goes through some kind of brief emotional difficulty and then shouts at him to wash his hands and face. As he leaves the room, she thanks God for the food.
“How about thanking me, too, eh?” asks Homer. She answers, “No. I thank Him. You, you couldn’t help yourself.”
Which is apparently true! And we’ve all met women like this, who somehow make people do things, good things, almost entirely against their will. I so appreciated seeing on screen that people who get things done are not always people you enjoy hanging around with. But she, too, gets a small but powerful moment of comeuppance before the end, and it comes about so slyly and so naturally, it made us laugh out loud.
Homer himself clearly has some things to work out with God, mixed up with his ambitions and his pride. In the end, he writes his name where only God can see it, and you can see that some interior need has been satisfied.
The trailer makes the movie look slapstick-y and even minstrel-y, which is misleading. It is a comedy, but in context, Poitier is a very subtle actor, and you can see his character deliberately sliding in and out of different personas depending on what’s called for. And there is a lot of complexity to manage, for a guy who tries to keep things simple and above-board. He’s a black baptist trying to hold his own with a German mother superior, a condescending white boss, and a crew of Mexican laborers. It’s a comedy, as I say, but I was surprised at how many real notes it struck along the way as it showed the interactions between people who don’t share a race, a religion, a social class, or even a language. In this way, it fully earned the hijinks and broadly joyful tone.
One funny point: In the last movie we watched, Babette’s Feast, the Catholic world is presented as being incarnational and alarmingly, joyfully fleshly. In this one, the “Baptist breakfast” is lavish and satisfying, but a “Catholic breakfast” is a single egg. It just goes to show, I guess.
I also loved the character of the faithful but disenchanted traveling priest in his sloppy RV, standing before the altar in his vestments and sunglasses. Very real.
My tiny quibbles: they should have picked someone else to dub Poitier’s singing. The voice (Jester Hairston, who wrote the song) doesn’t really match his speaking voice. But Poitier (who apparently was totally tone deaf) does a pretty good job of making it look like it’s coming out of his mouth. A counterpoint is that the sisters singing (which was apparently also overdubbed, but in this case to make them sound worse, not better) sound like normal women singing, not like an etherial choir, which I appreciated.
I also giggled to myself as the Mexican lapsed Catholic diner cook speaks (Stanley Adams). Most of the time, his Mexican accent won the day, but his undeniable Brooklyn accent got the upper hand a few times.
At one point, Poitier, in a sort of cultural exchange, teaches the sisters the song “Amen” and they instantly begin singing back to him in harmony, which injects a tiny false note; but the scene is still completely charming and effective. They use the device of Smith singing out the entire life of Jesus to the backdrop of the sisters repeating, “Amen, amen” to great effect throughout the movie (and now I’m hearing my kids singing it to themselves, which is great!).
All in all, highly recommended for the whole family, and genuinely funny. I plan to seek out more Poitier movies, too.
Next up: Probably we’ll do a double header, and have the little guys watch The Miracle Maker and then send them to bed so the older kids and adults can watch something rougher. I’d like to watch Silence or Calvary, but we shall see.