Director: Ralph Nelson
When we first see Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier) driving along a lonely desert road, we don't know where he's coming from or where he's going. He's a drifter, skilled at construction work and apparently without a steady home or job. When his car overheats, he pulls into the closest place where he can get water: a small farm worked by a group of nuns who've come to the US from East Germany. Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) asks Homer, whom she calls "Schmidt" instead of "Smith," to help with some odd jobs on their farm. Homer does so in expectation of getting paid, only to find that instead of giving him money, Mother Maria invites him to the nuns' meager meals, offers him a place to stay, and insists that he's an instrument of divine will, sent to build a chapel for the nuns and the parishioners in the surrounding area.
Homer figures out early on that the nuns can't pay him; they don't have the means, a fact confirmed to Homer by one of the locals, Juan (Stanley Adams), a friendly, business-minded man who isn't big on religion. Aside from Mother Maria, who's dignified and reserved, the other nuns - Sisters Agnes, Gertrude, Albertine, and Elizabeth - are like cheerful light-hearted birds, which almost masks the fact that they're living in poverty, barely able to subsist off their plot of land in the southwest US desert. So why does Homer stick around for a while, instead of immediately cutting his losses and driving off? We see at one point that he has the skill and confidence to land himself a job on the spot, so it's not that he can't find work anywhere. In part he stays out of a grudging sympathy for the nuns and a defensiveness on their behalf, which includes defending their choice to appoint him as a "contractor." It becomes a point of pride for him, especially when others scoff at the fact that the nuns have faith in him. Also, maybe he likes the feeling of being a part of the family, where he gets to break bread at their table and teach them English. They're strange and curious to him.
Furthermore, I think he relishes taking charge of the project and not getting ordered around on a construction site by another contractor. To Homer, building the chapel becomes a personal test and an opportunity. Poitier's strong performance conveys the struggle that Homer is locked into not only with Mother Maria but with himself. Building this chapel could tie him down to one spot for years and burden him with people's expectations, so what's the point? He doesn't want the commitment. On the other hand, he savors the challenge and perhaps the trust that comes with it. And Homer strikes me as someone who's rusty, possessing skills he hasn't used for years because he hasn't found work that's made real demands of his gifts. (Now, if only those nuns had money for him…)
Homer is a kind of everyman figure, and while I wanted to know more about his background, the role of timeless, aimless drifter makes sense for this movie. Lilies of the Field asks general questions about what people can leave behind them in this world, and what they can take with them. It's part of life to claim things as your own knowing you'll have to let go of them. But Homer also values personal recognition; he doesn't want to be seen as an instrument of a larger plan, perhaps interchangeable with others; ultimately, he wants to leave his mark on his terms.
Mother Maria isn't terribly concerned about Homer's indecisiveness. She recognizes it, but acts as if it doesn't exist. As far as she's concerned, he'll build that chapel. Not that she's forcing him to stay; she just acts as if it's a foregone conclusion. Mother Maria has her moments of tiredness or relaxed happiness, conveyed with subtle beauty by Lilia Skala, but what comes across most is her force of will. Maybe she needs to think of herself (and those around her) as instruments of a higher plan simply so that she can keep surviving and seeing something of her hopes realized. She brought her small group of nuns across the Iron Curtain and all the way to the US. The community they serve now, made up mostly of poor laborers, doesn't have a chapel so a chapel is what she'll build. Lack of money and building materials won't stop her, and neither will Homer's reluctance. Contradicting her is difficult, not because she threatens people, but because it's pointless, like telling the wind to stop blowing. At the same time she drives the other nuns, and Homer, to persist.
As two strong-willed people, Homer and Mother Maria share a kind of kinship even as they clash. What Homer mainly wants from her as the movie goes on is a recognition of himself as an individual. Mother Maria has a strong tendency to see people, including herself, as instruments of a larger divine will. What Homer demands is a more personal recognition. Mother Maria's acknowledgement doesn't mean everything to him. It doesn't make him over-joyed or grateful. But it would still be a kind of victory for him if she sees his hand in the chapel-building, a project he comes to regard as his own. It would be a nod of respect given from one formidable person to another.
Memorable sights and sounds
One striking sight is of the five nuns walking along the road in the desert heat to Father Murphy's outdoor services a considerable distance from their farm; they try their best not to show fatigue, especially Mother Maria, who looks like she could survive in the desert by sheer will alone. Father Murphy (Dan Frazer) is the local priest. Burned out and heat-worn, he performs his religious duties without dereliction but also without passion.
The singing in the movie is memorable. The nuns sing a melodious chant that catches at Homer; he drifts closer to listen to them. In turn he starts up a rousing Baptist song, to which they chorus "amen" in response to each line. When the nuns are singing to themselves they pronounce it 'ah-men'; in Homer's song it's 'ay-men.'
I also like the play of emotions on Mother Maria's face during the closing scene as she sits and listens while the other nuns sing obliviously.
There are many strong scenes, including some humorous ones; along with the drama of faith, of being chosen and challenged, there's also the comedy of a Baptist drifter surrounded by European nuns.
When Homer hears the nuns trying to improve their English using recordings that were meant for wealthier people ("Please send the valet up to my room"), he steps in and starts to teach them some phrases as well, having fun with it; a significant phrase, and one that takes Mother Maria rather a while to say, is "thank you." At other times Mother Maria and Homer point out different biblical verses to one another in order to communicate.
As for the construction of the chapel, it goes through several stages, reflecting changes in Homer's outlook. In this way the chapel-building takes on a kind of personality and spirit of its own.
When the chapel is finished, what comes next? Mother Maria looks ahead at everything else that needs to be done. Homer considers the completed work and what's changed, and what hasn't changed enough, as a result. Satisfaction at a job well done doesn't last for long before restlessness kicks in again. No one rests on their laurels.
*All images link back to their sources (Wikipedia, Rottentomatoes, and Flixster community). [Post edited 2/2015]