LILIES OF THE FIELD (1963) Finds the Miraculous in Loving Your Neighbor

Lilies Of The Field is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3,000 units.

I often get the opportunity to review older films that I know virtually nothing about, and the results can be pretty uneven. But sometimes this situation yields really pleasant surprises. Lilies Of The Field isn’t exactly underrated — Sidney Poitier took home an Academy Award for Best Actor, the first time the honor went to a black actor, in fact. But for whatever reason, I’d never really heard of this particular film and went in almost totally blind, aside from what the Blu-ray cover told me — Poitier, and a Biblical reference in the title.

I absolutely loved it.

Refreshingly straightforward and confident in its simple storytelling, Lilies of The Field charms effortlessly with likeable characters, gentle drama, and the idea of finding — or perhaps more appropriately, making — the miraculous in everyday life.

Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is a transient military veteran who lives out of his car and makes his sustenance working at odd jobs as a sort of itinerant handyman. While traveling through the Arizona desert, his car overheats and he stops for water, little suspecting his life is about to change. The small, remote farmstead houses a handful of German nuns, led by the austere Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who surprises him by immediately expressing her belief that God has sent him there to help them. He laughs off the suggestion, but agrees to repair their leaky roof in hopes that a quick job will help fund the next leg of his journey.

Afterward, Mother Maria convinces him to stay for dinner, as it’s too late to travel. And thus begins an endless of string of delays, excuses, guilt trips, and requests that will keep him there far longer than he ever intended. The Mother believes God has answered her prayers for aid, and that the unsuspecting handyman is really there to help them complete their dream of building a chapel and turning the farmstead into a place of ministry.

As Homer interacts with the nuns, who barely speak English, he becomes aware of their situation: they escaped from East Germany, inherited a tiny patch of land in Arizona, and spent all they had to travel there, placing their faith in God’s providence. The destitute Sisters live meagerly off the land, having worn out their welcome with most of the locals.

As Homer befriends them, his initial reluctance to help gives way to compassion as he teaches them English, drives them into town, and stocks their empty pantry. Key to story is the relationship between Homer and the nuns, particularly the no-nonsense Mother Maria, who frustratingly treats him with aloofness and ingratitude while simultaneously asking (demanding) him to help them. There’s a lot of rich material here, such as Homer and Maria arguing some finer points of Scripture using their respective Bible translations, or Homer teaching the girls to sing “Amen”, an upbeat Gospel song which sharply contrasts their stoic hymns.

Unfortunately, the film’s primary oversight is that among the nuns, only Mother Maria’s character is meaningfully developed. The other Sisters, who barely speak English, play more or less identical secondary roles, simply filling out the group. Faring better are the townsfolk and peripheral characters, including a lapsed Catholic who runs the local gas stop, the owner of a construction company who has grown weary of the nuns’ entreaties for building materials, and a circuit priest who conducts Mass in a parking lot for lack of a chapel. As they take an interest in the stranger and his dealings with the troublesome Sisters, they find their own compassion rekindled.

Interestingly, despite being released at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the film isn’t particularly interested in addressing any racial perspective on Homer and the nuns (except in the sense that the nuns are German). One might expect the story to to play up this obvious difference between them as an obstacle to overcome, but the fact that he is black and they are white is never really even brought up — I think this is because the film comes from a more idealistic mindset which promotes equality and racial tolerance by simply normalizing them as Christian behavior with no additional analysis.

Lilies Of The Field isn’t big or splashy, and maybe that’s why I’d never heard of it before. But the story is disarmingly simple, and I found myself constantly affected by so many of the small moments and spiritual energy that keep it moving. This has become one of my favorite Twilight Time releases, and will doubtlessly occupy a top spot on on my “Discoveries” list at the end of the year. Highly recommended!

The Package

Typical of the snazzy Twilight Time format, this release offers a Blu-ray in a transparent white case, and an 8-page booklet of notes on the film by Julie Kirgo. Limited Edition of 3000.

Special Features and Extras

Audio Commentary with Film Historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman

Isolated Score track
 Featuring Score by Jerry Goldsmith and anchored on variations of “Amen”; includes some sound effects.

Theatrical Trailer (3:14)

A/V Out.

Lilies Of The Field is available from Twilight Time in a Limited Edition of 3000 units.

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