To Do Good Work, You Gotta Have Good Tools: Lilies Of The Field (1963)

Popping in to post a blog as it is yet another snow day here in Columbia, South Carolina.  Apparently these things are rather rare in a decade, but we have somehow managed to have two in the same month.  I knew last night that I would sit some time aside to throw together a blog, but was rather uncertain as to what film I would discuss, as my viewing has still been predominantly directed at all things related to Godzilla.  Indeed, I watched the marvelous Point Blank last night and was rather certain that it would prove the point of discussion, but earlier this morning, amidst my inability to justify being productive despite being given a full day to myself, I finally caught up with Lilies of the Field, a classic in cinema that I had long been meaning to view.  While I expected a few things going into the film, particularly a great performance by Sidney Poitier and some heavy handedness in terms of religious allegories, what I did not expect was to discover a deeply engaging and outright evocative look into the nature of humanity, when social connections and a desire to prove communal worth take on transcendent levels.  Indeed, if read at a very face value level, Lilies of the Field will come across as an idyllic look at persons from non-hegemonic groups coming together in the name of a collective vision and this reading is not of base at all, because that is what the narrative emphasizes.  I would tough contest that it is this and so much more, looking specifically at how individuals are willing to reappropriate and rationalize their own world views either in grand or simple ways to fit with a larger idea, one that might at first seem wholly abstract or completely built on faith, but if the work of anthropologist Anne Fadiman is any indication, eventually in these spaces the spirit will catch you, and you will fall down, although in a far less violent or physical way.  Here the falling down is more of a social realization, one that notes diversity and barriers as things that can and should be transgressed and perhaps the most frustrating blockades to unity are those we build around ourselves.  If all this can occur within the space of a rather succinct modernization of the Tower of Babel tale, I would call Lilies of the Field a rousing success.

Lilies of the Field begins with the arrival of Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) to an unmarked nunnery, wherein he hopes to merely borrow water from the women there, in order to jumpstart his overheated engine and be on his way traveling.  This simple plan is quickly altered when the nunnery's head sister Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) asserts that the arrival of Homer is an answer to her prayers.  While Homer is noticeably and verbally reluctant to help, the insistence of Maria and the other nun's lead to him agreeing to fix a hole in the roof of the nunnery.  Assuming that this will suffice his duty and allow him to leave, Maria ends up convincing Homer that he must stay for dinner, a task that expands in to her blatant refusal to acknowledge his requests to be on his way.  Bizarrely intrigued by the constant insistence of Maria that he should stay, Homer decides to keep in residence at the nunnery, while also beginning work laying road for a local contractor.  During Sunday's Homer also serves as a chauffeur for the nun's to a local truck based Catholic church, run by the well-meaning but constantly intoxicated Father Murphy (Dan Frazer).  Refusing to be involved with the mass, as he identifies as a Baptist, Homer spends the time in a local tavern eating large amounts of food to make up for the minimalist breakfasts and dinners at the nunnery.  When Homer yet again attempts to leave, he is ignored the request by Maria, somehow becoming, instead, roped into working on building a church for the people of the area, including immigrants with little or no English skills.  Taking this task as a building of his own self-character, Homer pours his heart and soul into the endeavor, only to become roadblocked when he runs out of materials.  However, the desire of the community to see the church into fruitions results in communal donations of the materials required, a process that causes the group to learn to talk in a collective language and navigate their own understandings of spiritual endeavors. While Homer is offered a steady job in the process, upon completion of the church, he decides he must leave, although the town and the nunnery he has stayed with will be changed in noted ways, but clearly it is Homer who has advanced in the most considerable manner.

Building structures and creating faith are two endeavors that seem to involve similar rhetoric and it is little to no surprise that the filmmaker and the author of the original text are fixated on overlaying the themes within this film.  However, while this is key to the text, I am far more intrigued by the manner in which this film focuses on the troubles and benefits that emerge from creating semiotic understandings, or, more in-line with the previous sentence, language structures.  Lilies of the Field seems to be a film about the constant navigation of similarities and differences as they relate to talking and positively working in a collective manner.  Indeed, this is most telling in the initial engagement between Homer and the women of the nunnery at which he stays.  Whilst trying to teach the women proper English composition, he starts with a series of labeling of very subjective ideas, noting items in the room such as a phonograph and a record and suggesting them to be singularly of an item.  Yet when he moves out to explain the difference between his skin color as black and their whiteness, things become more complex as they repeat his statement, claiming themselves to be white.  In this rather humorous exchange, one begins to understand that the idea of blackness, or "schwarz"ness as it were to the nuns, only holds value when the language agrees upon a social ascribed implication.  Essentially, Homer's blackness holds no value in terms of language, when the women do not understand its societal implications and even when they do realize what he is suggesting it does lack a layer of societal problems that would emerge in other situations.  As fascinating as this exchange does prove to be, it seems a bit curious that the filmmaker does not navigate a similar language issue in regards to gender, but that already seems well established in the segregated space of the nunnery from the onset.  This language issue becomes even more intriguing when the building of the church becomes communal and the pictorial and gestural elements of communication take precedence over verbal suggestions, particularly ones of ideas, as the immigrant works listen to not Mother Maria, but Homer and his use of drawings and motions to complete the task.  Intriguingly, this reworking of language allows the group to build the space without the necessity of capitalist endeavors, denying the use of high quality bricks in favor of the adobe that had sufficed up until this point. Money holds far less value because their language in the space is barter and trade based, the bricks becoming removed from the term 'valuable' thus only being seen as fodder for a gravel walkway.

Key Scene:  The Amen song that becomes the point of bonding between the nuns and Homer is something I was aware of prior to viewing this film, however, it was far more engaging and delightful than I could have imagined.

I lucked out and obtained this as part of a large collection of DVD's.  It is currently rather pricy on Amazon and considering this I would suggesting renting it before making a commitment to dropping that much money on it, although it is certainly worth its price.

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