1963

Film #214: Lilies of the Field (1963)

We’ve already encountered several films that have made Oscar history in one way or another and the next film on our list, Lilies of the Field, is no exception. History was made thanks to the film’s only big name, Sidney Poitier, who became the first black man ever to win a competitive Oscar.

Although we’ve seen Poitier on Oscar-nominated form before, notably in The Defiant Ones, the 1960s was the decade in which the star really made a name for himself. The next three posts will look at films that Poitier starred in during the decade but we begin with the one in which he won his Oscar. For such a groundbreaking film, Lilies of the Field is quite a low-key affair in which Poitier plays drifter and jack-of-all trades Homer Smith. When his car runs out of water one day he stops to fill it up at a convent run by Eastern European nuns. As he’s welcomed in by the convent’s Mother Superior he unwittingly finds himself a one-day job as a handyman. However this one day job soon turns into a long-running affair as he discovers that the Mother Superior won’t let him leave the convent until he’s built the nuns a chapel. As he meets some more of the locals he learns of how the nuns have manipulated others in the past and realises that the best way to fix the situation is simply to build the chapels. As the film progresses Homer starts to sympathise with the nun’s struggle to leave their native Germany, they had to climb over the Berlin Wall, and as he had always wanted to be an architect he sets about trying to build the chapel. As word spreads people from the mainly Hispanic community more people come to lend support and materials. However, Homer refuses their help wanting this to be a single-handed project. He eventually gets the help and the chapel is finished but Mother Maria is too proud to let him stay and so he slips away while the other sisters are singing one of the Baptist hymns he taught them.

Lilies of the Field is such a simple film but at the same time is lovingly produced and well put together by director Ralph Nelson. The main theme of the film here is outsiders coming together in this case an African-American drifter, a group of East German nuns and poor Hispanic families as they work to construct something that the community can be proud of. Poitier’s performance is larger-than-life with his laughter being infectious and his general aura radiating from the screen. The fact that Poitier is the only big name star amongst the cast makes him stand out even more as he is deftly anchors the movie. As somebody who wasn’t really aware of his work up to this point he certainly won me over and I think that he definitely deserved his Oscar for this part. Also earning an Oscar nomination for her role in the film was Lilia Skala as the manipulative but loveable Mother Maria. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also deserves some praise for perfectly capturing the exterior locations and the conditions in which Homer is forced to build the chapel. Overall I found Lilies of the Field to be a simple tale about makeshift families and accepting the gifts that are offered to us at the right time.

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