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Lilies Of The Field  

Here's a nice film; 1963`s Lilies of the Field, starring the Oscar-winning Sidney Poitier as a man apparently without a home, who seemingly just lives his life driving around America, doing odd jobs just to survive. One day he unwittingly finds himself in the company of five German nuns in a run-down home in the middle of the Arizona desert. He is just passing through, as he puts it, and asks for some water to cool down his engine. But little does he know that he was sent by God to do an important task.

At least, this is what the Mother nun heard from the big guy himself. As soon as she sees Poitier helping himself with the well, she whispers "God is Good. He has brought us a big strong man." It seems that the nuns are hoping someone will help build them a decent chapel to worship in. Poitier is taken aback by this stern request, and protests it all the way. However, he is convinced to at least help fix the roof of the house. Little does he know that he has committed himself unconsciously to the greater plan: first, he is about to leave after his work, but he is convinced to stay for supper, then he is convinced to stay for the night, and so on, until he realizes he will not get away from here until he gets that chapel done. Truthfully, it's not so much that he can't get away, but, beneath all the bluster and protest, he clearly has a generous soul, which after an unknown time of lonesome wandering, will now actually be put to use. Even if he can't help but to do so.

Later on, he realizes it's not so much the nuns who need his help, but an entire community. Normally, the nuns must walk for miles on a dusty dirt road to their Sunday mass, but with Poitier`s car, they get him to drive them up. It turns out the ``church`` is nothing more than a spot behind a diner, led by a priest who travels in a camping trailer. The priest himself always wished he had a real church to work in, but doesn`t expect that to happen any time soon. But this only creates more reason for Poitier`s character to remain and build a chapel.

Poitier is a powerful actor, and even in light-hearted material like this he exudes tremendous presence. He handles both the comedic and confrontational scenes with ease. There are many fine moments in both those categories throughout the movie, including his first English lesson with the German nuns. He gets a real kick out of their eagerness to follow his instructions, and proceeds to have a lot of good-natured fun with it. Another scene has him getting them to join in a rousing gospel miles away from their rigid Catholic hymns. There is also a brilliantly subtle element involving racial tension, during the scene when the nuns try to persuade a construction company to hire Poitier`s character part-time so he would be able to stay for the chapel building. The foreman, as most Southern whites would do, addresses Poitier as 'boy', and clearly is suspicious of his credentials, yet slowly agrees to have him on board. No mention is made to the boy reference until the end of the conversation, when Poitier, in telling the foreman that he will be an extremely reliable employee, addresses him as 'boy'. That word is the only verbal reference, but the way Poiter says it revealed the growing confidence of society to address the reality of even subtle (perhaps even unintentional) racism in every day life, and to do something about it.

Another subtle element involves how Poitier truly feels about this mad task. Throughout the film, he behaves as if this is a true torture, to have to build this chapel for free, and to live under the nun`s strict rules, but at the same time, even he is begining to behave, if not through words, as if this is a mission of some heavenly kind which he must accomplish. There is a telling moment when the townspeople offer him help which Poitier constantly refuses, so much so as to put up a cardboard sign demanding the curious to keep their hands off the materials. The observers, led by the diner owner, subtly get into the job, however, which for a while dissappoints Poitier greatly, until he realizes that only his leadership and knowledge of the work will allow for the entire congregation to finish the job properly. Obviously, Poitier cares greatly that such a project be done well. Maybe he is a perfectionist, sure. Or maybe he believes this a test which must be won... or else it won`t be just people who are dissappointed, but God as well.

Speaking of religion, it must be said that the theological content of this film is not too deep. This isn`t a praise-the-Lord affair, but a film in where religion is used as part of the overall warmth of the picture. I don`t think anyone will feel conversion after viewing, but will possibly feel good about life as a whole. The concern about religion comes through when the diner owner says that while he does not know about the after and therefore doesn`t concern himself with it, he does good deeds for his fellow man out of insurance, just in case........ This might sound a bit like the idea by the original Seventh-Day Adventists that there are true Christians and false ones: the true ones believed in Jesus, and fully accepted his grace in his life, while the false ones merely pretended at it, by doing the deeds but not putting any faith into them. Apparently, those who go by insurance will not find themselves in a heavenly place when they are faced with the Final Judgement. But this is just religious doctrine, we`re dealing in reality here, and the message of the film is a good, humanistic one. It`s not so much that we should do good deeds to get on the good graces of spiritual institutions, but we should just do them regardless. By helping others out, we feel good and make others feel good. You feel good for having done something useful, and others will have a church where they can practise their religion instead of standing out in the windy desert. Christianity has nothing to do with it. Only decency.

David Macdonald

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