What a great film. It's a refreshingly simple, honest story, told without playing on emotion or artificially revving up drama, supported by wonderful performances. As I mentioned, Poitier won an Oscar for playing the itinerant construction worker Homer Smith; Lilia Skala was nominated for her supporting role as the Roman Catholic Mother Maria, who is trying to get Smith to build her and her sisters a chapel (or, in her thick German accent, a “schappel”). She gives the kind of performance that makes you forget she’s even an actress – you can’t imagine her as anyone other than her character. (The character, a severe German nun, could easily have been cartoonish – Smith even makes fun of her for this.) But she does a remarkably convincing job.
The film is notable, too, in the way that it treats Mother Maria’s faith. She trusts in God so completely that nearly every character thinks she’s a lunatic, but (without giving away too much) she’s vindicated. And it doesn’t have the cloying relativism of many faith-based films that tone down the spiritual in order to draw as many paying customers as possible. There are differences in people’s faiths, struggles within faith, but all are respected without the equivocation that tries to value any and every belief but ends up tearing every belief down (cf. Evan Almighty).
It’s such an honest story, too, without sacrificing good storytelling for absolute realism, or exacerbating vice to make people grittier or “more human.” It travels at a realistic pace – changes of heart take the time they would in real life, and hard work is depicted in a way that actually shows the hard work (no montages skipping right to the result).
The honesty continues in the depictions of the relationships between very different people, who are treated as people and not as peons of demographics. It’s often remembered as a very 'racial' film - Poitier's Oscar, for example, was the first awarded to a black man and the first given to a black person in a leading role. But the references to race are underplayed, rather than a focal point of the film. Smith, in teaching the sisters English, describes his skin as black like a stove or a record - just that, an observation, not an obsession. His accomplishment in the movie is a real achievement, valuable for the thing achieved and not because or despite the fact that's he black. In fact most characters never refer to or seem to notice his race at all. The result is a movie that's focused on humanity and not color. Watching the film as an adult, I noticed racial references that I never picked up on when I was younger. But that layer of the story never mattered, really: what I remembered was the very compelling story – a strong man being implored by a stronger Mother invoking the Strongest, God.