Tuesday 22 April 2008

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Having seen a whole slew of powerful Sidney Poitier performances in legendary films like The Defiant Ones, Blackboard Jungle, In the Heat of the Night, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love, it seems almost criminal that he only won a single Oscar. Never mind those other classics, he won it for this one which I knew nothing about other than it's the film for which Sidney Poitier won his only Oscar, not counting the honorary one he picked up in 2002. In fact he was only nominated for one other, for The Defiant Ones, even though he got six nods at the English equivalent, the BAFTA Awards, one of which was a win.

I'm not sure what I expected Lilies of the Field to be, but it turns out to be Sidney Poitier and five German nuns in the middle of the Arizona desert. They're escapees from East Germany, who came over the wall to farm land left to their order, but it isn't good farming land. Poitier plays Homer Smith, who merely stops his car to top up on water but finds himself effectively hijacked by Mother Maria who believes that he was sent as a gift from God to build them a chapel. She doesn't use force, being a five foot tall German nun, but she uses everything else in the book and very effectively too, from guilt to pride to just plain ordering him about.

Because this film is about Sidney Poitier and a bunch of German nuns, you may be excused for not seeing much incentive to watch but the whole film is a joy. Best of all is the dialogue between Homer Smith and Mother Maria, played with relish by 67 year old Austrian Lilia Skala, a good deal of which isn't spoken. The way the Mexicans take over the building work is superb too and there are plenty of other magic moments to choose from. It's a joyous riot of a film and I'm still trying to work out how that can be the case given the subject matter.

Just like the chapel, the film itself seems to have been a labour of love. Director Ralph Nelson put his house up as collateral. Sidney Poitier agreed to make the film for less than his usual salary but with a percentage of the profits. It was shot in 14 days on location in Tucson for an estimated $240,000 but pulled in over $3,000,000 in its first year. That Oscar can't have hurt his feelings either, but I wonder what the cast and crew felt when the chapel was demolished after shooting finished because they'd constructed it on rented land.

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