It’s hard to know what to say about a film like Lilies of the Field. On the one hand, everything about the film is done expertly well. The acting is solid, the cinematography is great, the directing never seems to miss a beat. On the other hand, there’s not much to the story. While it is somewhat inspirational, it’s not as much as it purports to be, and ultimately the characters are changed only very little from their beginnings.
I keep wavering on how highly to regard the film. Ultimately, I think what pushes it into the positive side of the ratings is the characters. They may not show much in the way of growth, but they’re already such developed characters in the beginning that perhaps they don’t need to.
Sidney Poitier plays Homer Smith, an itinerant handyman and drifter. The movie poster describes him as a former G.I., but I don’t recall this being mentioned or implied anywhere in the film itself. When his car starts to overheat, he pulls into a small convent in the desert. The convent consists of five nuns from East Germany, who were left the building as an inheritance and braved the Berlin Wall to get there. The farm is poorly managed, the building’s roof is leaking, and the nuns have to walk miles to reach the nearest village to participate in mass — and the village has no church in which to hold it. When Homer arrives, the head nun, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) thinks it’s a sign from God, and cajoles him into repairing their roof and doing other odd jobs. Then she tells him he’s going to build them a chapel. Polite disagreement ensues.
There is a low-key drama, with just a light touch of humor, in their relationship. Maria is convinced that whatever the convent needs, the Lord will provide. Homer expects to be paid for his work, is unsure where they’re going to get the supplies, and doesn’t want to stick around anyway. Maria and the nuns exist on what is virtually a pauper’s diet; Homer likes to breakfast on a stack of pancakes, multiple eggs, and a pile of sausage and bacon. Both have a severe stubborn streak in them. Maria is a stern taskmistress, while Homer is deeply prideful. He sees no reason why he should automatically obey the Mother Superior; he’s not even Catholic, he’s a Baptist. And yet he finds himself roped in. This may in large part be because he feels some pity for the nuns, and gets along with the rest of them better than he does Maria, teaching them the English language and Baptist spiritual songs. It may also help that he has a kindred spirit in local restauranteur Juan (Stanley Adams), a lapsed Catholic who would rather be serving breakfast on Sunday morning than attending mass.
Something that is a little interesting about the film is its approach to race relations — specifically how it nearly ignores the question completely. The film was released in 1963, as the civil rights movement was sweeping the U.S., and yet very little is made of the fact that Homer Smith is the sole black man in a convent of Germanic nuns in a Hispanic community. There are three ethnicities represented, and many of them can’t even communicate with each other — fluent English speakers being rare among both the nuns and the Hispanics — and yet the only conflict between these characters is solely over the work to be done. That’s not to say Homer’s race is ignored, it’s just apparently not a factor for the main characters. He does get called “Hey Boy” by a local businessman (played by director Ralph Nelson), but he calls him “Hey Boy” right back, and this seems to be the end of it. The man even hires Homer to operate a bulldozer for him so Homer can earn some actual money while helping out the nuns. There is also an incident after Homer leaves for a few weeks and comes back with a black eye, but this event is completely unexplained.
At the end, though the deed is accomplished (I think this is unlikely to be a spoiler — no viewer would expect the chapel not to be built), there’s little change in the characters. Mother Maria and Homer are slightly warmer to each other, but only slightly. She’s still stern, and has to be tricked into thanking him instead of thanking only God. He’s still prideful, still a Baptist, and still a drifter. It ends with a reprise of the nuns singing to Homer’s song as he departs, and perhaps if there’s a message, it’s to be found there: that even in a cacophony of personalities, something resembling harmony can be found.
I was, as I said, uncertain on how I felt about the film as a whole. The building of the chapel isn’t all that inspirational to me; it just doesn’t seem like that grand of an accomplishment by the end of the film. There’s little dramatic tension beyond the mild conflict of personalities, which only rarely comes to shouted words, and little change in character. As a result, it doesn’t have a lot of emotional torque to it. But there’s something pleasant, and even a little fun, about watching the characters. This is the film that won Sidney Poitier a Best Actor Oscar, and it’s an award that’s deserved. Homer feels like a fully developed, fully actualized character right from the beginning. The same could be said for Mother Maria and for Juan. Perhaps this is why there is so little character development; there simply isn’t far for them to go.