After a five-minute standing ovation at Cannes and every second Australian reviewer giving it 5 stars, Samson and Delilah (along with Mary and Max) is renewing hope in many that Australians can make great cinema. In truth, Samson and Delilah is by no means perfect, but it is certainly a striking feature debut for Warwick Thornton, visually eloquent and emotionally vital.
The film is at heart a love story. Samson is a petrol-sniffing teenager with a mischievous streak. Delilah is more strait-laced, spending her days looking after her grandmother who is a painter in their isolated aboriginal community. Samson slowly wins Delilah’s attention though his first attempt, involving throwing rocks at her, is not so successful. Delilah is, understandably, wary of Samson’s advances but her grandmother is more than amused by the situation, urging her to engage in Samson’s puzzling courtship.
This first section is stunning. With not much dialogue at all, Thornton depicts the small community and the teenagers’ relationship by paying particular attention to the gestures and mannerisms of his characters. So much information is giving about the space and the characters visually, the fact that the characters are not prone to expressing themelves verbally never calls attention to itself.
Yet sound is really important in Sampson and Delilah. In a way reminiscent of Spike Lee’s use of different music genres in Do the Right Thing, Warwick uses music as a way of defining his characters’ cultural identities. Samson enjoys listening to country music on the radio. Delilah has a penchant for latino ballads. Samson’s brother plays in a rudimentary ska band that, much to Samson’s chagrin, practices incessantly outside his bedroom window. Right from the start of the film, it is fascinating to see how the music heard on the soundtrack will slip into another style or different styles play over the top of one another.
When a minor tragedy strikes, both Samson and Delilah become outcasts of their community and run away, ending up in a life on the fringes of Alice Springs. Here the film is less successful as Thornton perhaps too forcefully pushes his social commentary to the fore. It might lack subtlety but it’s still good, perhaps suffering from comparison with another film about life on the fringes of society, Wendy and Lucy.
Samson and Delilah ends on a happy note which you will be thankful for as an audience because Thornton takes you to some pretty dark, violent, rapey places. Yet, I also felt like the ending of Samson and Delilah‘s happy ending was a bit of a cheat. Both kids are saved out of nowhere by some benevolent man and end up in an idyllic farm by themselves far from the corruption of the big smoke and the danger of their small community. What kind of hope does this really give kids who find themselves in the position of Sampson and Delilah?
One peculiarity of Samson and Delilah is how asexual their relationship is. There is only one particularly erotic scene in the film, where Delilah gazes on Samson as he dances topless by himself in the street at night. Other than that, the characters do not display any of the raging hormones that teenagers usually have at their age. The potential eroticism of a later scene in which Delilah bathes Samson is disavowed by suggestions of renewal, purity and rebirth. In fact, that scene and the characters’ decidedly asexual teenage love might be a hint of a specific Christian aesthetic in Thornton’s work.
Still, Samson and Delilah is a vital movie and definitely worth seeing. It is certainly interesting that it takes indigenous directors such as Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen (Beneath Clouds) to tell authentic contemporary stories about indigenous people while white Australian directors seem obsessed with fetishizing the Stolen Generation and telling dated stories from colonial times (see Rabbit Proof Fence and Australia!). We could use a few more directors in Australia who have a need to tell stories about the here and now.
SEE THIS WITH:
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008)
George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)