Sidney Poitier may be gone, but he never will be forgotten, and Lilies of the Field is one of the reasons why. The gentle, inspirational story of a drifter who happens upon a colony of nuns in the Arizona desert and helps them construct a chapel stands as one of Poitier's most engaging and enduring films and earned the trailblazing actor a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. Kino's reissue of the Twilight Time Blu-ray features the same strong transfer and solid audio as its predecessor, but adds a new, perceptive commentary track that honors this classic film and the actor who defines it. Highly Recommended.
When my phone lit up with the sad news of Sidney Poitier's death at age 94 last week, I began reflecting on the many great, important, and groundbreaking films the legendary actor made over the course of his 50-year Hollywood career. There's In the Heat of the Night, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Patch of Blue, A Raisin in the Sun, Blackboard Jungle, Pressure Point, and To Sir, With Love, to name but a few. All of them deal with some form of racism, an issue close to the heart of Hollywood's first - and for many years only - black leading man, who broke down barriers both as an actor and vigorous civil rights activist.
Ironically, though, the movie that won Poitier his Best Actor Oscar really doesn't tackle racism at all. On the contrary, Lilies of the Field, produced during a period of horrific racial violence in America, depicts an almost utopian universe where people of myriad ethnicities, creeds, and nationalities work together for the common good. Poitier portrays an almost Christ-like figure in this gentle, inspirational, often humorous feel-good film that depicts the simple joys and intangible rewards of a cooperative existence. If you're looking for a picture that celebrates Poitier's talent, honors his contributions to the industry, and best represents the values and ideals that defined the man himself, this is it.
The simple story focuses on drifter Homer Smith (Poitier), who happens upon a Catholic nun's colony in the desert Southwest while searching for some water for his car's depleted radiator. Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) heads the small group of East German holy women, who made a daring escape over the Berlin Wall so they could emigrate to America and cultivate a parcel of property bequeathed to their order. Stern, controlling, and fortified by boundless faith, Mother Maria convinces Homer to stay overnight so he can fix her leaky roof, but once she sees how terrifically handy this strapping, stubborn young man is, she believes him to be an answer to the nuns' prayers, a holy gift sent by God to help them construct a modest chapel on their land.
Homer and Mother Maria lock horns but develop a silent understanding and underlying mutual respect that nurtures them both. At one time an aspiring architect, Homer reluctantly agrees to build the chapel, and though the arduous project doesn't go smoothly, it eventually unites the disparate community in a common cause for the greater good. Amazingly, the barren, blistered, isolated region seems blissfully free of color lines and immune to ethnic prejudices. Language issues make communication difficult - most of the nuns don't speak English, nor do the Mexican immigrants who live in the tiny nearby town - but the basic tenets of hard work and helping one's fellow man break down the barriers and infuse a sense of hope and optimism in everyone involved.
Lilies of the Field marked only the second feature film for director Ralph Nelson, who plied his trade in television for more than a decade before helming the film adaptation of Requiem for a Heavyweight the year before. (He also directed the acclaimed Playhouse 90 version of Requiem for live TV in 1956.) His light touch and nuanced storytelling technique lend Lilies of the Field a lovely lyricism that complements the narrative's reverential tone. Though the harmonious America Nelson depicts may be aspirational (sadly, we're still aspiring to realize his vision almost 60 years later), it never feels forced, artificial, or unattainable. The desert locations and low-budget look enhance the film's authentic feel, and despite its thin plot, the narrative moves amiably along, coasting on the strength of its vital characters, one of whom - a cynical construction company owner - Nelson plays himself.
Poitier carries the movie with a disarmingly natural, soulful, and understated portrayal. Whether trying to break the ice with the uptight, pious nuns by teaching them a simple song or managing the Mexican volunteers helping to construct the chapel, Poitier has rarely seemed more relaxed and serene on screen. He creates marvelous chemistry with Skala, who received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her fine work, and shares a warm rapport with Stanley Adams, a veteran character actor who supplies welcome sardonic humor as the chummy owner of the local trading post who offers Homer some choice words of wisdom. In all, Lilies of the Field garnered five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, but without Poitier, who - especially now - looms over the film like an angel, it's doubtful this unassuming, warm-hearted drama ever would have attracted much attention.
Because we live in an era chock full of gifted and acclaimed black actors, it's easy to take Poitier for granted today. Such thespian heavyweights as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith, Mahershala Ali, and the late Chadwick Boseman make it almost impossible to fathom that Poitier stood alone for so many, many years. The burden of responsibility to his race and pressure to make creative choices that would satisfy his artistic impulses and help diminish bigotry in both the film industry and society at large must have been overwhelming and debilitating at times, but he never let the stresses show. Poitier carried what must have been a very heavy torch with grace and dignity, always making sure the flame burned bright and hot. The fire in his piercing gaze, the tenderness in his heart, his clear-eyed perspective, and uncanny ability to honestly project the African-American experience in a variety of diverse roles allowed him to craft countless powerful and indelible performances that continue to inspire us, move us, and earn our lasting respect.
Lilies of the Field is just one such performance. His portrayal of the humble, fiercely independent Homer Smith may not possess the intensity and bravado of some of his flashier parts, but it gives us the whole Poitier package and - especially now - radiates with a glorious heavenly glow. Much like Homer was a gift to the nuns, Poitier was a gift to moviegoers and the world at large, a towering figure who transcended his profession and helped facilitate real, lasting change. And just like the song Homer and the nuns sing with such fervor in the movie, we should all take a moment to salute this unforgettable, transformative, and beloved actor with a heartfelt "Amen, Amen."
For another take on Lilies of the Field, read my colleague Gordon Miller's review of the 2016 Twilight Time Blu-ray release by clicking here.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The KLSC edition of Lilies of the Field arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer seems to be the exact same one used for the 2016 Twilight Time release. Like many low-budget, independent films, Lilies of the Field can look a little ragged at times, but the transfer faithfully renders Ernest Haller's naturalistic, Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography. A healthy grain structure lends the image a lovely film-like appearance, but some digital noise creeps in from time to time on solid backdrops like walls and sky. Excellent clarity, contrast, and grayscale produce a vibrant picture that beautifully showcases the barren, dusty desert landscapes and such tactile details as the texture of stucco walls and grittiness of wet cement. The lush blacks and bright whites of the nuns' habits are especially well-rendered, shadow detail is good, sharp close-ups highlight fine facial features well, and only a few faint vertical lines and some mild intermittent speckling dot the otherwise clean print. A full-scale restoration undoubtedly would make Lilies of the Field look exponentially better, but for now, this transfer certainly suffices and outclasses any previous home video edition.
The audio is also the same, although Kino presents the DTS-HD Master Audio track in 2.0 mono instead of 1.0. There's not a whole lot of sonic action in this quiet, intimate film, but subtleties like footsteps crunching against dirt and concrete come through crisply and the rumbles of heavy machinery and car engines supply some oomph. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend, good fidelity heightens the impact of Jerry Goldsmith's understated music score, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle intrude.
Kino replaces all the Twilight Time supplements, except for the film's trailer.
Audio Commentary - Film historian and critic Sergio Mims sits down for this brand new track that's both interesting and informative. Mims calls Lilies of the Field "the little film that could" because of its independent, low-budget roots, and during his commentary he discusses the collapse of the Golden Age studio system, the nature of a star vehicle, the idea of the "magical Negro" that permeates many Hollywood movies, and how Lilies of the Field was considered to be "revolutionary" at the time of its release. He also provides in-depth bios of Poitier, Lilia Skala, and director Ralph Nelson, and examines Poitier's place in cinema during his heyday and the creative choices he made once he became a star. Though Mims doesn't spend a great deal of time talking about Lilies of the Field directly, he touches enough bases to give this important and enduring motion picture its proper due.
Trailers - In addition to the original theatrical trailer for Lilies of the Field, Kino includes several previews for other films starring Poitier and directed by Nelson.
There's no better way to remember the great Sidney Poitier than by watching this heartwarming, inspirational, and consistently charming film. Poitier brings his patented passion and magnetism to Lilies of the Field, which showcases this immensely talented, trailblazing actor in his Oscar-winning role. Kino's reissue of the previous Twilight Time release features the same strong transfer and solid audio, but adds a new, involving commentary track. Lilies of the Field may not stand as Poitier's best film, but it's a defining piece of work that will be forever admired and cherished. Highly Recommended.