Many times, movies about religion just leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Their agenda simply becomes preaching, converting the non-believers and depicting the punishments of the unholy. I don’t care to watch someone give my soul an ultimatum. Movies are meant to be an escape, that safe place where our devilish fantasies can run wild for a while that won’t send us to confession. Lilies of the Field is one of the best feel-good film’s I’ve ever seen where ideas about Christianity are present but not preached upon.
While Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is heading west though the desert, his car overheats at a little house where four nuns from Germany live. He stops just to get some water, thanking and being very polite with Mother Maria (Lilia Skala). She asks Smith to stay, reassuring him that he was sent by God. He just smiles, saying he’s only there for the water, but as he’s about to leave he sees all the backbreaking work the women do. Half motivated by good will, half wanting to make some money, Smith turns around to help the nuns.
Mother Maria has big dreams of building a chapel on their land. Every Sunday, the nuns have to walk miles along the desert road to Mass that is held in a general store parking lot. This chapel would bring the congregation to them and provide shelter. Two corners on a cement slab have already been started, but Smith sees there’s a long way to go. Mother Maria is convinced that Smith has been sent by God to help build the Chapel, so that’s the work she gives him, but with no materials or plans and her thanks only go to God. While the plot focuses on the wonder and hope that Smith will somehow build the chapel for the nuns, despite Mother Maria’s less than thankful attitude towards him, there are subplots about faith, gratitude and respect that make the chapel even more important.
After Mass, Smith meets the congregation’s priest, Father Murphy (Dan Frazer). He asks Smith if he is really building the chapel for the nuns and suggests he move on before he gets too involved. It seems that Murphy has lost some faith, his prayers of working in a nice big chapel have yet to be answered. Instead, he drives an RV four hundred miles a week to perform Mass outdoors for the rural Hispanic communities. He seems genuinely disenchanted with his “poor man’s Vatican.”
Smith and Mother Maria are both stubborn and start to butt heads. Smith wants more to eat than an egg and milk to fuel him to work all day. On Sundays, he drives the nuns to Mass, but does not attend. Instead, he gets the big breakfast he’s been wishing for. Mother Maria won’t stand for any laziness and believes in the chapel so much that she takes Smith’s hard work for granted. It is very refreshing to see that the head nun is not always perfect.
After Smith’s first meal with the nuns is one of their finest moments in bonding. The nuns are trying to learn English by repeating after a phonograph, but it seems to be teaching them sentences for tourists. Smith chimes in and the nuns repeat, “The record is black.” To reiterate what black is, he continues and points to his hand, “My skin is black.” The nuns point to their pale hands and repeat. It’s a wonderful moment, as sweet and funny as it is innocent and we realize that these nuns don’t have the concept of racism that was in such high profile in ‘63. Throughout the film, there are more of these moments. Smith teaches the nuns a hymn he probably learned in his boyhood at a Southern Baptist church and the song becomes theme music for the film. Poitier’s performance as Smith was hailed so highly that he became the first African American man to receive the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Lilies in the Field can bring more issues to light than any Evangelical after school special. Non-Christians won’t cringe and scoff at the ideas, because they are basic human ideas and values, not filled with a strictly Christian agenda. While we can admire the nun’s faith and innocence, Smith depicts the modern man who doesn’t go to church, but is no less of a good person. Whether Smith really was sent by God or not is never answered, nor do we care. What matters is people doing good for each other, no matter what their race or creed.
“Old Mother gonna feed the slaves?”