|Marissa Gibson, Rowan McNamara, Samson & Delilah|
photo Mark Rogers
This cycle of behaviour, of indolence and duty, is repeated, framed each time in similar ways, for example our point of view ‘walks’ us behind the boy or to his side, as if travelling with him. But in each iteration a new element is fed in. The boy (Rowan McNamara as Samson) listens to the radio, cutting out the local noise, tuning into the Green Bush program for those, like his father, in gaol. The girl (Marissa Gibson as Delilah) shuts herself in a car, immersing herself in the lush romantic music of the Mexican singer Anna Gabriel. Few words have been uttered. Few more will be said. This is a world of little change, its cyclical images etched into our consciousness, gradually assuming symbolic power—the same objects, the same movements, the same sounds. These gradually accrue great emotional weight—wheelchair, ringing phone, dot paintings, a song, a simple crucifix in a church—Thornton, his editor (Roland Gallois), location sound recorder (David Tranter) and sound designer (Liam Egan) subtly modulating the way we see or hear them. In a film of few words, the sound design and concomitant sound worlds associated with the characters become keys to our emotional relationship with them.
Things happen that interrupt the cycle. Samson sees Delilah outside the local store. He throws a stone at her, perhaps a first adolescent attempt at contact (later she’ll give him some food, and throw stones herself). He doesn’t speak. At night he sits in a wheelchair in the middle of the dusty road as a huge SUV drives towards him, but does he hear it? One day Samson follows Delilah and Nana (Mitjili Gibson) on their daily walk. One day Nana, giggling, encourages Delilah to pair off with Samson, “Go off...he’s the right skin for you.” One night Delilah, listening to Anna Gabriel in the car, watches Samson dance sinuously outside his house. She smiles a rare smile. Her music, his body. Thornton builds an incipient relationship out of watching and listening.
Samson moves into Delilah’s yard with his mattress. She throws it over the fence. He wanders off to a sandy gully, digs a hole which fills with water, sinks dreamily into it, finds himself suddenly face to face with a kangaroo, kills it and takes it back to Delilah. Very similar images—burying, a dead kangaroo—will powerfully recur in the film, as will haircutting in a poignant variation of the Bible story of Samson and Delilah, delivered in some of Thornton’s most intense close-up shooting and Tranter’s sound recording. In the meantime, one morning Samson viciously assaults the guitarist. One morning Gran dies. Delilah is falsely accused by relatives and neighbours of not looking after her. She shears away her hair. The daily ritual is over. Samson and Delilah are soon outcasts.
The sense of daily ritual in the first part of the film, of a depleted but oddly stable everyday life, portrayed in recurrent visual and aural images and small variations, is immersive, and an inventive lateral approach to narrative. Thornton builds a world rather than simply telling a story. Then he shatters that world with sad and brutal disruptions.
I won’t detail more of the story, save that from here, in the film’s second movement, Thornton takes Samson and Delilah to Alice Springs, to its art shops, cafes and supermarkets, its middle class school kids with mobile phones, a meaningless church and a riverbed refuge beneath a bridge shared with a relatively loquacious eccentric, Gonzo (Scott Thornton) who goads Samson into his few stuttered words in the film. The extreme fall of the young pair into a numb hell is deeply painful to witness, Delilah unanchored without her Gran, Samson sinking further into his addiction. What follows is a shocking series of events, Thornton making it all the more so by enveloping us within Samson’s aural oblivion. But what follows that is truly unexpected.
There is a moment when the film appears to complete itself, when it looks like survival is an option for the pair, but Thornton pushes beyond mere gesture to a third movement, a new reality for Samson and Delilah, one replete with images from the first—cross, kangaroo, wheelchair, music, dot painting, hair. This suggests a conclusion that is above all symbolic. It says there are ways out of an appalling condition, that recovery and love are possible, but the filmmaker doesn’t offer a social or political solution. However, and this is to Thornton’s great credit, we feel that this essentially symbolic ending to the film is nonetheless very real. This is because we know these reticent characters so well and are tied to them by the sounds and images that have constellated, web-like, around them, because he has wrought the performances we don’t question from untrained actors, because he has conjured a coherent imaginary world rooted in brutal realities.
Thornton himself is emphatic that Samson and Delilah is, above all, a love story. It’s potentially tragic but, as he has asked, how can that kind of telling be responsible. Rather than despair he intimates hope through individual action and mutual caring. Save for when the pair are at their lowest ebb, we believe in the love between Samson and Delilah simply from the ways they look at each other, their wordless togetherness, from first encounter to tentative courtship and shared escape. But it’s not love alone that creates a new reality for the pair: the terms are Delilah’s, born of her caring for her Nana, a knowledge of the world beyond petrol-sniffing and with the eye and hand of an artist.
Samson and Delilah won the Adelaide Film Festival Audience Award (see editorial), no mean feat in an era of alleged audience wariness of grim Australian feature films. Perhaps it’s the way the film’s narrative resolves, but there is enormous pain on the way. Perhaps it’s because of the scale of Thornton’s vision. It’s interesting to compare Samson and Delilah with another fine film about young people, Ivan Sen’s award-winning Beneath Clouds (2002), a story of incipient love and understanding amidst cultural complexities. But Thornton pushes even further than Sen into the psyches of his characters and evokes, from two small lives, a much larger cultural picture. He achieves this through the carefully structured deployment of symbolism rooted in the everyday of the film’s world. But there’s also beauty, and it’s one of the most painful things about the film, that a great cinematographer turned director can rightly torment us with the tension between what appears beautiful—the morning sun haloing a handsome young boy—and the abject reality of a meaningless life.
It’s a reminder too of the existential core of Samson and Delilah—the boy has no family to turn to, the girl none who want her. The sense of community is thin, tradition limited to Gran’s exploited paintings. No one answers the insistent phone that calls for help and connection. Not until Delilah picks it up. Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah is rooted in the culture in which the filmmaker grew up; the film’s power resides in its specificity of place and its realistic depiction of the condition of Aboriginal people. Thornton’s protagonists are a new generation of lost ones, lost by their own people as well as white culture, making their struggle and the final image of their possible survival doubly poignant. With its harshly beautiful images of hope, Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah is destined to become an Australian film classic.
Samson and Delilah, writer, director, director of photography Warwick Thornton, cast Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Scott Thornton, Mitjili Gibson, producer Kath Shelper, assistant producer, casting Peter Bartlett, editor Roland Gallois, production design Daran Fulham, costume Heather Wallace, make-up Carol Cameron, sound recordist David Tranter, sound design Liam Egan; Scarlett Pictures & CAAMA Productions, distributor Footprint Films with with Transmission Films and Paramount
RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 23
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org