And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
-Matthew 6: 28-29, King James Version
I am very familiar with this passage from the Bible (part of the Sermon on the Mount, this passage is part of one of my favourites—a beautiful little piece of scripture on how futile it is to worry), but when I first heard of the name of this film, the relevance of its title didn’t strike me. When I started watching it, I realized: yes, the lilies of the field are impermanent, evanescent, depending on no-one and yet not even doing anything very visible to keep themselves alive. But they—like all the flowers of this world, especially the wild ones, with no-one to care for them—are amongst the most beautiful of God’s creations.
Not an exact parallel with the protagonists of this heart-warming and sweet little tale, but close. And with some subtly-put messages about being content with one’s lot, yet pushing on, working hard.
But, to begin at the beginning. On a dusty road somewhere in the southern United States. Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) is a handyman, driving down an otherwise deserted road in his car, when he pulls up. He opens the hood, has a look in, and realises the car has overheated. He gets back in, drives on, and a few metres ahead, turns the car onto a side road—as dusty as the main road—goes on a little way, and finally stops at a small, scrubby and poor little farm.
There are five women here, all hard at work. All are nuns. Four cluster together, giving Homer shy, friendly smiles as he gets out of the car with his canvas water carrier. The fifth nun—a stern-faced lady with forbidding eyes—stands apart from the others, and Homer, recognising that here is authority, approaches her to ask if he may have some water. Nearly 4 minutes into the film, this is the first bit of dialogue, but we already have a good feel of the atmosphere: a stranger passing through a hard and ruthless land; the nuns, perhaps so lonely, they even welcome the coming of a stranger—yet wary.
The nun Homer addresses turns out to be Mother Maria (Lilia Skala); she shows him the hand-pump, and says, in heavily accented, somewhat rickety English, that he can help himself. Homer does, and having filled up the canvas bag and thanked Mother Maria, turns to leave. Mother Maria tries to stop him: will he not stay? They have work for him.
Homer isn’t, however, completely heartless. Within moments, he’s turned round and come back. He tells Mother Maria, in a gruff undertone, that he couldn’t bring himself to see ladies doing such backbreaking work, so he’ll hire himself out to them for the day. Just the day, mind; and he’ll present a bill at the end of the day. Mother Maria looks dubious and repeats the word “Hire,” in an unsure sort of way. Homer is put to work on repairing a leaky roof.
His work completed a few hours later, Homer presents the bill to Mother Maria. And receives an unpleasant shock in return: she simply ignores it. Instead, the nuns (who, it emerges, are from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and address him as Schmidt) call him to join them for dinner.
Homer, having slogged his butt off all day long, is ready for a bellyful of food, and figures that the conversation about his payment may just as well take place after dinner.
Now comes another shock. Far from a bellyful, what he gets—what each of them gets—is a small plate with a slice of bread, a mug full of milk, and what looks like a little helping of mashed potatoes. Homer races through it, obviously regarding this as a first course.
When he’s finished (it takes him less than a minute to eat, though the nuns eat more slowly, relishing the food—such as it is—and with more decorum), one of the nuns kindly passes him more bread. There’s just one slice on the plate, and Homer polishes it off.
And then, as the nuns put their cutlery aside and wipe their mouths, Homer realises: this was it. Dinner. Mother Maria proudly tells him that someday soon they will have vegetables too, and, later, chicken. Imagine. The four other nuns agree happily, and Homer sits there, stunned. It’s apparent that the women are truly content with what they’ve just eaten, and neither complain about the meagre fare, nor feel the need to apologise to their guest for it.
Dinner over, the nuns spend some time doing a very important task: learning their English. They have a phonograph record on which, for every German sentence (and they’re all very typically touristy sentences: “Please send a valet to my room,”, and others in the same vein), the English equivalent is spoken. The nuns—Mother Maria, Sister Agnes (Isa Crino), Sister Gertrude (Lisa Mann), Sister Albertine (Francesca Jarvis) and Sister Elizabeth (Pamela Branch)—repeat dutifully after.
Homer, after some bemused (and amused) watching, decides to take over. He can teach these women English more quickly than the phonograph record can. The five nuns, led by Homer, do make some cautious progress with the language, and it helps them lose some of their shyness with Homer, but the question still remains: when is Mother Maria going to pay Homer for the work he’s done on their leaky roof?
Not in a hurry, it appears. When Homer tries to quote scripture to Mother Maria, trying to unsubtly tell her that a labourer must be paid for his labour, she quashes him by quoting Matthew 6 to him. Consider the lilies of the field, she says. The message is loud and clear: Homer shouldn’t worry so much about the money he’s due.
It turns out, the next day (when Homer again tries to demand his payment), that Mother Maria actually has another job in store for him: she wants him to build a chapel. She has a drawing of what she has in mind, and she even shows Homer the spot: the ruins (or half-built remains) of an earlier building, close to the tiny rooms in which the nuns stay.
Homer thinks Mother Maria’s off her head. It’s laughable, of course, to imagine that one man, all by himself, would be able to build a chapel. Then there’s the even more real problem of building material: the nuns are poor as church mice; they can barely afford enough to eat—where on earth will they get bricks and cement and everything else that’s needed for the construction?
God will provide, Mother Maria says imperiously.
Equally imperiously, she commands Homer to drive all five nuns to church on Sunday. The church is several miles away, and all these days, the nuns have been walking the distance to and from church. Now that Homer, with his car, is there, Mother Maria sees no need for the long trek. Homer’s emphatic refusal—that he doesn’t go to church, he’s Baptist—has the expected result…
… The next morning we see Homer, clad in a neat dark suit and tie, polishing up the car, ready to take the nuns to church.
Church, to Homer’s surprise, consists of a congregation (all of them, except for the nuns, Hispanic) standing out in the open behind a camper van. Homer ducks out of joining in; he has to have breakfast, he explains to Mother Maria. Leaving the nuns, he goes into a large shop-and-eatery next door. The owner, Juan (Stanley Adams) is amused to hear Homer’s order: freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, stacks of wheatcakes, maple syrup, melted butter, eggs, sausages. Beans, too? asks Juan. Yes, beans, too. Eating at the nuns’ table has given Homer a big appetite.
More importantly, Juan gives Homer some interesting information. The nuns have come here from East Germany: they somehow managed to cross the Berlin Wall, and came to this corner of the US because someone had left them this ramshackle piece of land. They don’t have a cent to call their own, and Juan seems to think they must be loony to try and scratch a living of any sort out of that sad little piece of land they’ve got.
Mass over, Mother Maria insists on dragging Homer off to meet the priest, the Irishman Father Murphy (Dan Frazer). Father Murphy invites Homer into the camper (which turns out to be his home) and tells Homer a little about himself: he lives and travels in the camper, going from one community to another, setting up this makeshift church wherever he happens to be so that people can gather together to worship.
But that’s a pipe dream, surely? Because Mother Maria does not even have the money to afford bricks for the chapel. Even if he wanted to, how could Homer ever get the chapel built?
Based on a novel by William E Barrett (who also wrote The Left Hand of God), Lilies of the Field is one of those few films that I began enjoying almost from the very beginning—and which left a smile on my face long after I’d finished. There was nothing about this film that I didn’t like, but a good bit which I did like, so that’s what follows.
What I liked about this film:
The story and the way it plays out. Lilies of the Field is a simple, straightforward story: a story of dreams, dreams that often seem so utterly impossible, it might be considered worthless to even entertain such dreams—dreams which require tenacity. And, more than tenacity, faith. Ultimately, that is what this story is about: faith. Not necessarily Christian faith, not even faith in God, but faith in something or someone that helps people keep going. Faith, perhaps, in oneself, or in others. Faith and hope that things will turn out for the best. Faith in the innate goodness of people.
That ‘innate goodness’ is another aspect of Lilies of the Field that appealed to me: the inherent sense of right and wrong, the consciences of the people in it. The imperiousness of Mother Maria—the bossy way in which she goes about forcing people (like Homer) to do what she wants—or Homer’s own not-very-respectful way of talking to Mother Maria (he’s not really rude, just irreverent): neither prevents them from actually, deep down, showing respect, simple love, and humanity for the other. And for others around.
I loved other things about the film, too: the characterizations, for example. Everybody here is believable; real people, people who value things like friendship and hope and helping others even at a cost to themselves. Nobody is infallible or too saintly for words; on the other hand, nobody is outright villainous.
Lilies of the Field is, on the whole, a lovely little film. A feel-good film, a heartwarming story about all that makes life really worth living: love, human companionship, the comfort of faith. It’s a sweet film, yet not syrupy; and it has a nice touch of humour.
And there’s Sidney Poitier, one of my favourite actors, and in a role that won him an Academy Award for Best Actor (the first time an African American won the award). Watch it, if only for him. He brings Homer Smith to life brilliantly: sassy at times, sometimes vulnerable, sweet and kind, yet occasionally also mulish—a superb portrayal of a complex and interesting character.
Plus, one delightful hymn that I really loved, Amen Amen Amen.