Monday, October 10, 2011

Lilies of the Field (1963)

No-family enjoyed another of its favorite movies this weekend, "Lilies of the Field" starring Sidney Poitier and Lilla Skalla.  

Poitier plays Homer Smith, a handyman drifter whose station wagon is his magic carpet and whose domain is the world.  Driving through Arizona, he stops for radiator water at a desolate farm in Arizona, which turns out to be the convent of a group of eastern European sisters.

Mother Superior (Maria), played by Skalla is a battle-axe nun in the pre-Vatican-II mold: extremely high on the faith and endurance scales; extremely low on the social grace and gratitude scales.  The nuns barely speak English.  

Homer's grand adventure begins when Mother Maria identifies him as the answer to her prayers.  She's asked for God to send her a strong man to build them a chapel.  His good nature and humor make him a perfect dupe.  But, for whom?  Mother Superior, or God?

You feel badly for Smith as he gets sucked into Mother Superiors schemes, and badly for  her (them) when he walks out or stands on his rights as a man owed his due.  They are made for each other; they need each other in providential ways; they do God's will through their struggles against each other's wills.

The movie's most famous artifact is the "Amen" song that too many Catholics have had to endure in too many churches for too many decades.  Nevertheless, it's fresh in this scene, which is more-or-less repeated, quite meaningfully, at the end.  This feeling-it Baptist shows these buttoned-up Romans a thing or two about sacred music.  And, they dig it.

In this scene, Smith, having come to grips with his aversions, insists on undertaking the project on his own despite others desire to help him.  His commitment drags them out of incredulity into Mother Superior's dreams, but he doesn't want to share the task with anyone.

This movie works for a number of reasons.  First, Poitier is a magical actor.  He could invoke more pathos with one facial expression than most contemporary actors can with 100 grunts and emotional conundrums.  Secondly, the interplay of Mother Maria, Smith, the nuns, and the Mexican town folk is precious.  Thirdly, it is a story of profound faith, mysterious providence, human frailty and divine strength.

A YouTube commenter left the following illuminating tidbit:
This movie was made is three weeks, with almost no budget, and no sets. The director saved money by casting himself in the part of "Mr. Ashton." Poitier agreed to do the project for no money, but a return on ticket sales. He won an Oscar for this performance, instead.
There's a character for every disposition in this film: the carefree soul who revels in his capability and freedom; the strong-willed autocrat who doesn't know the meaning of the words "give it up," "enough" or "thank you"; the pure and trusting souls who live in obedience and the grace of state; the pious and humble people for whom the souls of their children mean more than all the riches of the world; the skeptics whose grasp of the practical leaves little-to-nothing to reach towards heaven with; the fallen for whom things have not turned out as they bargained.  All are saved, just as we would hope for in reality.

For Noman's money, this is nearly a perfect film.  It makes you laugh, cry, squirm and, most importantly, contemplate the mysterious ways of God who writes prose with the leg of a table just to let everyone know who the author is.

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