When the news of Sidney Poitier’s death came out, I thought about how long it had been since I’d seen him perform, and then I realized I had never seen Lilies of the Field, the 1963 film that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor, so I watched it on Amazon Prime Video.
It’s an uplifting story with a strong Christian message. It doesn’t insult your intelligence. I recommend it, although it’s in black and white, has no computer graphics, no explosions, and no super heroes.
The story concerns an itinerant African American construction worker, Homer Smith, who chances upon a small group of Eastern European nuns trying to build a chapel in the Arizona desert. Mother Maria takes one look at Smith and thanks God for sending her a big, strong man. She knows he is God’s chosen instrument to complete the chapel for her rural Mexican-American congregation.
The nuns are doing their best, but they don’t have building skills. They’ve come from East Germany to take over this plot of land, willed to them by a German American farmer. It was a miracle that they could come to Arizona from behind the Iron Curtain. Now they need a second miracle to get their chapel built.
Smith does some work for the nuns, then moves on. They can’t pay him, and they can’t buy bricks to finish the chapel. He’s frustrated and wants to enjoy life in the city. Something pulls him back, and he commits to completing the chapel. Once he’s fully involved, the Hispanic community comes together and helps him, rather against his will. He had wanted the chapel to be his achievement alone.
However, it turns out that someone needs to bring order out of chaos on the job site, so Smith becomes the boss, and coordinates the enthusiastic Spanish-speaking workers. A local construction contractor donates enough bricks to complete the job.
When the chapel is finished, Smith sets the cross on the roof and writes his name in the fresh concrete surrounding it. An artist in his own way, he signs his work where it can’t be seen, except by God.
Poitier, as Smith, and Lilia Skala, as Mother Maria, play off each other well, and create moments of wry humor when they argue about paying him, supporting their arguments by citing Bible verses. Smith cites verses justifying his pay, and Mother Maria cites the “lilies of the field verse,” to explain why she can’t pay him. The nuns have no money and depend totally on God.
God is the other major character in the story. I’m still pondering what God’s role was. The film left me with questions about the relationship between God’s will and human choices and I don’t have answers.
Whose will creates the chapel? God’s? Mother Maria’s? Smith’s? Mother Maria can’t bear to thank Smith for his work. She gives all the glory to God. Smith feels devalued by her, and resents it, even as he works hard to complete the chapel.
Mother Maria lives by prayer. She is convinced that a chapel will be built. It is God’s will. Homer Smith, after a struggle, bows to Mother Maria’s forceful explanation of God’s will. But should the glory go only to God, or can Homer get some credit for choosing to obey?
I appreciate a film that leaves me with something to think about. Lilies of the Field has an engaging, positive story. Enjoy it on that level, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself giving it deeper thought.