Samson and Delilah is an Australian film, released on May 7 2009, distributed by Footprint Films. Directed and written by Warwick Thornton, starring Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson. Delilah's grandmother is played by the actress' real-life grandmother, Mitjili Gibson. The two young principals are first-time actors, who have experienced the life that they portray on the screen by living on the streets of Alice Springs. The director said he knew that "this film ain't gonna make $200 million". He describes it as a love story.
I really can't tell whether I liked this film or not, which I suppose means I didn't. It's one of only four films ever to be given five stars by both Margaret and David from At the Movies, they were lost for words when they finally agreed on something ("It deserves it, David", "It does", "It really does", "And it's great...", etc.). It's received rave reviews, it's been said to be the greatest Australian film ever made, but I'm left sitting here wondering what's wrong with me because I didn't enjoy it. It's a bit like one of Hemingway's novels; very little happens, you're told as little as possible, and it's supposed to be amazing but I just can't see the point. I end up feeling like an idiot because I can't see the art here. Am I just an idiot?
The film tells the story of two fourteen-year-old aboriginal kids living in a community near Alice Springs. Samson is a petrol-sniffing layabout whose brother has a band that only knows one song. Delilah is a strong-willed girl with a burden of responsibility; she takes care of her grandmother, who suffers from an ailment that's undisclosed to the audience. He wakes up and reaches for his petrol can, before wandering around the dusty street all day and watching Delilah. She wakes up and reaches for her grandmother's medicine, and pushes her in a wheelchair to the camper-van health clinic and the corrugated iron chapel every day. Samson decides that he likes Delilah, and then decides to move in with her and her Grandmother; that is to say he drags his mattress from his bare bedroom to her dusty yard, which is where they all sleep, despite there being a shack a metre away. She doesn't want him there, and several times throws his bedding over the low fence, but he keeps coming back, and the Grandmother says that this effectively makes him her husband. Perhaps this is the way Aborigines pick their spouses, I don't know, and I suppose it's unfair to judge one society by the standards of another, but it just seems counter to the idea that this film is a love story. But we, the audience, are to believe that from this point on, they are in love.
One day Samson and Delilah are both beaten and ostracised, he for hitting his brother over the head with a log, she for supposedly allowing her decrepit grandmother to die in the night. He picks her up while she is sleeping, puts her in a car, and drives away. She seems not the least bit angry about this, and they start walking along the roadside when they run out of petrol. They stay under a bridge with a vagrant named Gonzo. Several catastrophes befall Delilah, and Samson falls deeper into his drug habit. Delilah comes to rescue Samson with the aid of his brother, and they go off to live in "her country", which amounts to a shack on a Northern Territory plain. There Samson listens to an aboriginal radio station, and his father makes a song request from prison, where he'll be leaving in six months. A touch of optimism creeps in.
The pair never say a word to each other, only ever using a few hand gestures that Aborigines frequently use. Samson only says three words in the whole film anyway: twice he yells "yeah!" when he tries to play his brother's guitar, and he says his name to Gonzo. It seems that he stutters badly, which is probably the reason why he speaks so rarely. Most of the dialogue comes from Gonzo, who rants and sings badly by the fireside.
The root of the problem...
So there's not much to the story, and that's fine. There are plenty of films made with minimal plot but plenty to say, except that I can't see what this film has to say. Aborigines get the short end of the stick in modern Australia, but that's not a new revelation. It shows the plight of Aborigines in westernised Australia, yes, but does it have a message? I'm not sure. Is it that mutual hardship brings people together? People can be noble when in poverty? Communism flourishes when people have nothing? Aborigines can only break free from their culture of pessimism by starting completely anew? Something about love transcending a people's surroundings? Maybe all of these things? Maybe?
Maybe I just have bad taste. Maybe I am a cinematic idiot. It worries me.
A few thoughts...
Something I thought was interesting about this film was that the characters were not subjected to any direct racism. The white shopkeeper underpays Delilah and her grandmother for the paintings that they make, and then sells them on to an art dealer for thousands, but he's only motivated by the money. When Samson is followed around a supermarket by a white security guard it's because his face is bloody and bruised, he's skulking suspiciously, and he is actually trying to steal things. Outright racism doesn't seem to be the focus here, it's the subtler, more insidious kinds of racial inequality that are everywhere. Samson's petrol-sniffing habit grows worse and worse as the pair's situation and prospects become bleaker by the day, which I think is a symbol for the self-destructive habits that are seen everywhere in modern Aboriginal culture. Gonzo says "you'd better cut that shit out, it'll fuck up ya brain", before taking a desperate gulp from his wine cask. The ever-repeating three-chord riff of the "verandah band" and their one song, as well as being something of a leitmotif, encapsulates the hopeless boredom and repetitiveness of these people's lives; with no jobs and the dole keeping them fed, what is there to do? When Samson tries to break the pattern with his loud, atonal strumming, his brother hits him and takes back the guitar, imprinting the same feckless, accepting mindset upon the next generation of aboriginal kids. Delilah listens to an Italian cassette and Samson listens to Rock 'n' Roll on the radio, it seems they both want something more than the band members, who have probably played the same chords for years, and have no intention of changing them.
There seems also to be a great streak of male chauvinism running through this film, although I'm not sure how much of that is the writer's and how much is just part of aboriginal culture. Samson is a loser with no prospects, Delilah is strong-willed and capable, and yet she does so much for him and he so little for her. He forces himself into her life and abducts her, and she accepts this completely. Occasionally he makes a flaccid attempt at being helpful, such as putting a blanket on her shoulders or sharing a bit of sausage with her, and the only times he is truly useful is when he opportunistically kills a Kangaroo that hops up to within an arm's reach of him. He barely notices when she is abducted to be raped, and later hit by a car, because he's in a petrol-induced stupor. In contrast, she buys him food, pumps water for him, actively goes hunting for Kangaroo (successfully), cooks for him, rescues him when he overdoses, and bathes him when he is barely conscious, for no reason that is apparent to me. Again, maybe this is just the way traditional Aborigines do things, but I can't understand it, personally. How is this a love story, when she gives so much and he so little?
The wheelchair is quite a prominent motif in this film. Samson rolls around the streets in one he took from another able-bodied boy, Delilah pushes her grandmother around in one, and later she does the same for Samson after his overdose. I suppose it's a symbol for dependence; that Samson plays with one shows how he willingly makes himself dependent on everyone around him; later he is dependent on Delilah, and very content to be so. It is always Delilah pushing someone in the chair, because she's such a strong and generous person, she'll take responsibility for those who'll take none.
I do have good things to say about it, though...
The acting is definitely outstanding. The kids are so terribly convincing because they've been researching for these roles by living them all their lives, and it shows. It seems so effortless, the way they know just how to look or shake their heads a certain way. Thornton, being a cinematographer, frames each shot so well, even when using a hand-held camera, that you forget you're watching a film at all. I think that's really the job of the cinematographer: to be unnoticeable. The skilful cinematography does justice to the beautiful scenery that's found in the Northern Territory; the red earth, the twisted trees and the wide sky. The one thing that isn't conveyed is the terrible heat.
It is a well-made film, no doubt about it, but I just don't see what all the fuss is about.