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Lilies of the Field
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Mastered in HD! Nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture and winner of the Best Actor Oscar (Sidney Poitier, In the Heat of the Night). Homer Smith (Poitier), an itinerant handyman, is driving through the Arizona desert when he meets five impoverished nuns. Stopping to fix their leaky farmhouse roof, Homer discovers that not only will the Mother Superior not pay him for the job, but she also wants him to build their chapel - for free! Hesitant at fist, Homer soon finds himself single-handedly raising the chapel and the financing. But although he will not receive a monetary reward, Homer knows that when his work is done, he'll leave that dusty desert town a much better place than when he found it. Ralph Nelson (Duel at Diablo) wonderfully directed this gem of a motion picture featuring stunning black-and-white cinematography by the great Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind, Mildred Pierce).
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The film tells the story of an African American itinerant worker who encounters a group of East German nuns when he stops at their convent to fill his "thirsty" car with water. They believe he has been sent to them by God to build them a new chapel in the desert.
It is a nuanced and sophisticated performance delivered by Poitier between him and the ensemble of nuns headed by Lilia Skala. One can only conjecture how much a name like Lilia influenced the decision to cast her.
A precursor to the film, 'Field of Dreams', where the spoken central theme so pointedly quoted by the Voice is, "If you build it, he will come.", the unspoken theme here is, if you believe it, the Builder will come.
Like all classic films, the dialogue in this one renders its share of quotable quotes, like, "That's a Catholic breakfast'", spoken by Poitier's character Homer Smith after discovering that there is only one egg to be had, which he gulps down in one swallow before bidding a nun a silent adieu.
The picture was shot in Arizona on a budget of $450,000, but was nearly scrapped because the studio refused to put up more than $250,000. Paralleling the film's central theme in a real life tell of life imitating art, producer/director Ralph Nelson stepped out on faith to see the project through to fruition by putting up his own house for collateral for the remainder of the necessary funds. Sidney Poitier also agreed to work on a deferred payment status, taking no upfront salary for his efforts.
From these modest and nearly quelled beginnings sprang the stuff of legends. It carved an indelible landmark in cinema history, being well received as a social commentary of decency in a real world climate of interracial unrest.
Films like Lilies of the Field are hardly being made anymore. They are rare gems in a sea of inflated budgets and action driven escapades. Such massive studio efforts are to be lauded and applauded, but balancing the cinematic mix with a simple tale well told is always a welcomed respite.
A refreshing perspective on the paradigm of religious diversity, race, and culture which still has resounding reverberations in today's current zeitgeist, this film has a built in esteem and universal appeal that has not waxed and waned with the passing of time.
It was one in a series of films that would culminate to create a screen legend and an American icon that Sidney Poitier is regarded as today.
Lilies of the Field is a consummate classic of American cinema that is still beloved by critics, with continued accolades more than fifty years after its release. The film itself is a testament to its theme: Believe and dream, and the means will come.
-Robb Edward Morris