Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Homer Smith, a cheerful, itinerant Baptist handyman who one day pulls off the road and approaches a house with no more thought than to get water for his car radiator.
The house belongs to a community of German women religious led by stern, iron-willed Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who quickly sizes up this capable man whom God has sent her way, and decides to find something for him to do.
Smith is determined to move on, but soon agrees to a day’s work; and proceeds to find himself faced with one task after another. Exactly how much Mother Maria intends to ask of him — and how much she is able to pay him — are not immediately clear; nor is the extent to which the language barrier is a hindrance to her and the extent to which she is hiding behind it.
Despite the divergence in faith and culture, a tolerant ecumenical respect characterizes the relationship between Smith and the sisters. He cheerfully offers them free English lessons, and, in a joyous sequence, leads them in a united proclamation of the Gospel in song, teaching them the Baptist spiritual "Amen," which narrates the entire life of Christ from the Virgin Birth to the Ascension. The possibility of reciprocity is raised by Smith’s suggestion that the sisters likewise teach him the Latin chant they had been singing — the Tantum ergo — but this, alas, never materializes.
However, Smith does have something to gain from the encounter. True, he finds that the sisters’ austerity is not for him: "Is that a Catholic breakfast?" he asks dubiously when offered a single fried egg, and proceeds to illustrate, in a great sight gag, how a Baptist eats a Catholic breakfast. And when the sisters attend a local outdoor Mass (there is no church or chapel in the area), Smith withdraws to a nearby diner for a real Baptist breakfast. But when the full scope of Mother Maria’s vision is laid before him, the nun’s faith and conviction challenges Smith to confront his doubts and misgivings. Later, when the project is well underway, there is a more subtle lesson about pride.
Refreshingly candid cultural observations season the story: in the scene at the diner near the outdoor Mass, the counter-man complains to Smith about the priest, who is Irish and drinks — though the counter-man himself is a Mexican lapsed Catholic and Smith is a black Southern Baptist!
The bishop (Basil Ruysdael) is a decent enough chap, sympathetic to the sisters’ mission but daunted by the practical difficulties. As their cause goes forward, however, he begins to suspect that what’s driving them is an irresistible force before which there is no known immovable object: "There hasn’t been for 2000 years."
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.