Lilies Of The Field (1963)
THE 1950s AND '60s LEFT US with some of the most notable religious epics ever put to film. The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and many other wide screen spectaculars pulled countless thousands into theaters. Yet during this pious era, there was one humble film that is often overlooked today, even though it was the recipient of five Oscar nominations in 1962 (including Best Picture and Best Actor).
Appropriately, it all begins with a Baptist carpenter -- Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier). When his car succumbs to the heat of the Arizona desert, he makes a quick pit stop for water from the well of a small group of German nuns. But Mother Superior Maria (Lilia Skala), who has been praying for someone to help fix up the place and ultimately build her a real chapel, doesn't see his coming as a coincidental breakdown.
In need of a few dollars, the vagabond carpenter mistakenly interprets Mother Maria's acceptance of his offer to fix the roof as hired work. Careful to have never said she would actually pay Homer, the manipulative Maria skillfully keeps her fish on the hook after the job is done by giving his pride room to grow. At the same time, Homer soon recognizes that Maria's strict characteristics keep her from feeling the spirit of the work to which she has dedicated her life. Engaged in an often-humorous mental tug-of-war, both are convinced they have the upper hand.
If you've never viewed this film before, you owe it to yourself to watch it at least twice. At first glance, you'll enjoy the simple story, but a closer look will reveal a complex set of characters precisely crafted to portray subtle examples of pride, humility, apathy, and selfishness.
Lilies Of The Field isn't about VistaVision, casts of thousands, or glamorous costumes. In fact, it's one of the last major Hollywood productions to not even warrant a budget for color film. Yet this timeless epic, based on a short novel by the late William Barrett, exhibits a depth of religious understanding I haven't seen in any other movie.