There is something of a miracle in the 1963 drama, Lilies of the Field.
The film, adapted from the 1962 novel by William E. Barrett, stars Sidney Poitier as a traveling carpenter who experiences car trouble in Arizona. Here he meets a strict Order of Eastern European nuns trying to scratch a living out of the dry Arizona soil.
The Mother Superior of this Order (Lilia Skala) bosses around a handful of nuns. She is a humorless, shut-up-and-do-your-work kind of woman who dreams of building a chapel. (She pronounces it “shapple” with her thick Austrian accent.) Poitier, she believes, is a man sent by God to build her church.
Poitier obliges the nuns by patching a leaky roof and fixing a few things on their property, while politely rebuffing Skala’s demands to build a church. However, when a local contractor (Ralph Nelson) insinuates an African American doesn’t have the aptitude for such a project, Poitier decides to prove him wrong. “I’m gonna build me a shappel,” he says with amused determination.
Erecting a structure without materials and labour is an impossible task. But, despite considerable setbacks, Poitier begins to form a chapel in the desert. Building a church out of nothing is miraculous, but it isn’t the Big miracle in this movie.
That would be Poitier’s refusal to murder Skala.
Skala’s character is as abrasive as they come. Not only does she belittle Poitier, she refuses to thank him for his hard work, or for providing food, or for teaching them English. Poitier manages to shrug off her grating sarcasm, but Skala doesn’t know when to quit.
In the scene where he finally has it out with her, Poitier enters the “convent” with a heavy box of groceries and finds Skala in a Mood. (Poitier is pressuring her to get bricks and she can’t find a donor.) She picks a fight almost as soon as he steps inside the door.
Skala: “Why do you buy things to eat we do not need?”
Poitier: “Now just a minute. You are very large on religion and all the rest of it. But you don’t even know how to accept a gift from somebody without making them feel small. Small! You follow?”
Skala: “Poor man! His feelings is hurt.”
Poitier: “I’m not twisting your arm for any thank yous, but I’m through feeling small.”
Poitier abruptly leaves the building, packs his belongings and drives away.
It’s a cathartic moment. We (the audience) are tired of Skala pummelling Poitier with her self-righteous anger, and when his vehicle vanishes in a bitter cloud of dust, we think, It’s about time.
Weeks later, Poitier unexpectedly returns. His reappearance shows Skala something she professes to believe, but is unable or unwilling to demonstrate: Forgiveness.
When Poitier reappears, sporting a flowered shirt and a hangover, a local restauranteur (Stanley Adams) quizzes him about his disappearance.
Adams: “A question. Why?”
Poitier: “Why’d I take off?”
Adams: “No. Why did you come back?”
Good question. Poitier is under no obligation to help these nuns, especially Skala. A person would not blame him for abandoning her in the unrelenting Arizona sun.
But. Poitier’s character is, above all, a humanitarian. He’s aware these nuns are ignored by society as they struggle with their pitiless land. He realizes that for all Skala’s faults, her overarching desire is not to enrich herself. Her goal is to provide the surrounding community with a place of worship.
He also knows if he doesn’t help them, no one will.
Poitier’s work in this film won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was the first African American to win this Oscar, and it would be another 38 years before another African American won in this category. (Denzel Washington won for Training Day).
Poitier is not merely an excellent actor who makes us believe in his character. He also makes us believe in the value of forgiveness.
Lilies of the Field: Starring Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala, Stanley Adams. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Written by James Poe. United Artists, 1963, 97 mins.
This post is part of the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries!