Reviews — January 31
Watching the 1963 classic “Lilies of the Field” is, in a number of ways, a disorienting and even unsettling experience. It was made in the midst of divisive racial struggles (the Birmingham riots that spring, and the March on Washington later that summer). And yet here we have a young Sidney Poitier in a movie with barely a hint of the nation’s explosive social situation. As enjoyable as it is, one almost wants to blurt, “Yes, but … .”
Poitier is a delight as Homer Smith, a handyman traveling through Arizona who is cajoled into building a chapel for some East German immigrant nuns — for free. Based on a book by William Barrett about a supposedly true event, the film is a mostly lighthearted portrait of a strange and unlikely friendship, and also of community-building. And it has some fine music — one of the great film composer Jerry Goldsmith’s early efforts.
I’d love to know how the movie was received in the fall of 1963 — three months after Poitier joined 200,000 Freedom Marchers in Washington, D.C.
Was it seen as a salve for a blistering wound, or an exercise in denial?
That would take some digging, but one thing we know and should remember: This was the film for which an African-American first won a competitive best actor Oscar. “It’s been a long journey to this moment,” Poitier declared. Indeed. “Lilies of the Field” remains a fascinating milestone along the route.
“Lilies of the Field” (1063) Directed by Ralph Nelson. Starring Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala (also nominated for an Oscar for playing the Mother Superior) and Stanley Adams. 95 minutes. Unrated.
Several descriptions of Ismet Prcic’s “Shards” convinced me this was a novel I wouldn’t want to read, just something I had to power through because it’s this year’s MacReads book.
It wasn’t the subject matter — the main character is a refugee of the 1990s Bosnian civil war — that put me off. It was the way every report emphasized that the narrative skips back and forth in time and that it includes the parallel story of another young man who stayed in Bosnia, who may or may not be the main character and may or may not be real.
Sounded too sci-fi, and too contrived, as if the egotistical writer (who gave the protagonist his own name, for heaven’s sake) was more concerned with showing off all the latest tricks, rather than telling a story.
I was wrong.
“Shards” does skip around in time as the narrator, Izzy, struggles to deal with post-traumatic stress by writing a diary. And there are sections about Mustafa, a soldier in Bosnia who shares some traits with Izzy or onto whom, perhaps, Izzy projects his own fears and desires. And it is really, really well written, with evocative descriptions that take you into a city under siege and the shell-shocked minds of its people, before, during and long after the war.
Here’s one example: Izzy, who has been living in California for three years, is waiting for a commuter train that will take him to his girlfriend’s house. A freighter roars by.
“The sound pierced me. I fell to the ground. For a moment it was happening right there ... . The war had come to me. An explosion rocked the walled-off neighborhood beyond the station’s parking lot ... . Debris sprayed everywhere, clanging into parked cars. A palm tree toppled over onto a green Chrysler. A Mexican kid fell off his bike, smoke devouring the cul-de-sac behind him ... then it was blue sky, and cars wavering in the heat, and the kid contentedly riding in a loop ... and nothing was happening, absolutely nothing was going on.”
“Shards” is a wonderful book, one I’ll remember. I still don’t get Prcic’s choice of names for the main character, though; it doesn’t bother me, but I feel bad for the author — he must have to spend way too much time explaining that this is a novel, rather than his actual diary.
“Shards,” by Ismet Prcic, 2011, Black Cat Publishers.