Friday, May 15, 2009

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2009)
Call me cynical, but I’m always a bit dubious when Australian critics rave over the latest Australian film. Think Black Balloon, I film I detested more for its mediocrity and formula than anything else (though, before you all jump on my head, I know others loved it).

The vibe around Samson and Delilah has been a little different. It wasn’t because David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz both gave it five stars, reportedly the first time they’re both awarded the highest score to a film since they made the move to the ABC from SBS a few years ago. The trouble with that is that everyone knows they inflate the scores of Australian films, rendering their evaluations unreliable (and how do you differentiate between a five-star film and a four-star film you’ve given five stars to? It’s not like you can give six stars to a genuine five-star film).

It’s not that I discounted the raves from At The Movies, but it was more the word I was hearing from several, more reliable sources. That the film has been accepted into competition for Un certain regard at Cannes also added to the film’s credentials.

My verdict? I'll come out up front and say that I found Samson and Delilah a remarkable and original film. I saw it last night at the Nova, hosted by HRAFF and followed by a panel discussion.

Samson and Delilah is a type and quality of film we rarely see in this country. Director Warwick Thornton has very strong instincts. While he's made a number of short films (which, by the way, have won numerous awards and are screening next Thursday at the Nova), this is his first feature. Yet it has both a style and a competence that puts him way ahead of many seasoned operators.

On paper, the story might sound bleak - we follow a pair of impoverished indigenous teenagers as they generally get themselves into all sorts of strife - but I find it has little in common with what we might associate as bleak Australian cinema.

Usually, we associate a bleak film as one that depicts so-called low-lifes as they exist at the bottom of society’s barrel. We often gauge them, struggling against a middle-class back-drop and we make judgements, both of their class and society as a whole.

In contrast, the broader society is almost as absent in Samson and Delilah as it was in Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. Bear in mind that the latter was set in ancient times, pre-European settlement. Samson and Delilah is a contemporary story that takes the perspectives of the two titular characters, and we get an insider’s perspective, a glimpse into their world, their lives as they live them in a remote aboriginal community in the Alice Springs area.

When circumstances force the pair to relocate to the Alice Springs township, like the characters, we never really get to interact with the broader community. Rather, they are passing characters who we never really make any judgements about. Nor do we really make any judgements about those in the remote aboriginal community. Thornton keeps his cards close to his chest about those kinds of judgements.

Rather than being a patronising story to highlight Aboriginal disadvantage, tugging at our heart-strings, our pity or our guilt, the film is really a fascinating inside look at a totally different way of life, a different culture. Rather than being a bleak social realist film, it's more of an ethnographic story like say, Tulpan or The Tale of the Weeping Camel. Poverty is, after all, relative. The film depicts life as these kids know it and have probably always known it.

Technically, the strengths of the film rest in the visuals, the sound and the music. The Alice Springs region is, of course, amazingly photogenic and Thornton uses it to good advantage without ever coming close to postcard cliché. Incidentally, Thornton wrote and photographed the film himself! Also as an aside, he demonstrates how to skilfully perform hand-held camera work.

The performances are strong all-round, many from first-time actors. Rowan McNamara (for whom English is a second language) as Samson and Marissa Gibson as Delilah (looking like a very young version of Cathy Freeman) are both extraordinarily natural performers. Marissa's grandmother, Mitjili Gibson and the director's brother, Scott Thornton as the alcoholic Gonzo both provided strong (and humorous) support. Their characters and the story are infused with a deep sense of humanism.

The sound design and music are unconventional and slightly off-kilter. That's not a criticism, rather it's very much a positive. For me there are three really outstanding moments, and each involves a slight disconnection between the visual and audio perspectives on the film.

You may have seen the film’s trailer where we see Samson dancing freely to his music. But we watch him from Delilah's perspective as we hear her music. The effect is extraordinary. In the other incidents, both of which involve cars, we see something that happens to one character, oblivious to the other, who is absorbed in listening to music.
*** END ALERT ***

Another arresting feature of the film is the scarcity of dialogue, especially between the protagonists. With another story, this might seem a bit tricksy, a bit too clever or contrived. In Samson and Delilah, it feels very natural and consistent with the culture and characters depicted. It also strengthens the focus on the visuals and sound design.

I love that this film is very personal to Thornton and made from the heart. It shows, and not only does the story feel authentic but it is ethnographically unique. And, as mentioned above, it does it without eliciting pity or guilt from the viewer. It simply is. Thornton is telling his mob's story (as he likes to say) in a way that is both engrossing while appealing to universal sensibilities.

The title of the film has nothing to do with the biblical story. But religious imagery is scattered through the film. A clearly-distressed Delilah enters a church, walks up the aisle under the gaze of the priest. She leaves and not a word is exchanged. In another scene, we see Delilah hauling a large piece of dead timber. The imagery is clearly reminiscent of Jesus hauling the cross. There are other visual references to Christianity, but Thornton depicts them in a matter-of-fact way without projecting any judgements of the place of religion. He leaves space for the imagination.

Some might find the car accident towards the end a bit incredible, especially because it leads to what might be considered a false ending. Having recently survived serious road trauma without a single fracture, and in better shape than Delilah, I found it completely credible.
*** END ALERT ***

The false ending is perhaps the closest thing to a flaw I could find, and I do think there’s a slight hiccough at that point, but it really is a minor quibble that doesn’t detract from the film’s obvious strengths. It would be interesting to get the director’s commentary on that, perhaps on a DVD/Blue-Ray release. But really, this is a magnificent looking film that screams to be seen on the big screen.

Ultimately, Samson and Delilah is a story about love and a story about hope. But there's nothing profound in that observation; that's the stated intention of the director.

Samson and Delilah is screening at the Nova, Rivoli and Palace Brighton Bay cinemas.

The Warwick Thornton short films are screening at the Nova cinema on Thursday 21 May at 7pm – it’s a single screening, so don’t miss it.



Cinema Autopsy said...

Hi Paul. Great review and I like your take on it being an ethnographic film. It certain does give us an insight into a world that is foreign, even to most Australians.

I haven't seen the Warwick Thornton short films yet and I'm not sure that I will be able to attend the upcoming screening, so I'm hoping that you will let us know what they are like here.

By the way, I interviewed Thornton and his producer for the show I do on JOY 94.9 and a transcript of that interview can be read here. The interview was only played on air recently but I recorded it in March.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for the comments and the link, Thomas, which I've added to the post. The shorts are definitely worth seeing, and I'll post more about them - today hopefully.

poignantPoint said...

Well written as always Paul. Though, I did feel a level of guilt towards the situations of many homeless Aboriginals in Australia. Thornton didn't ram it down our throat, but it is clearly a problematic issue that he wanted to trigger talk about.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks, PP. You may feel guilt, and I understand that but I don't think it's the director's intention. In fact, I think he has his own community in his sights as much as broader society.

If you can, get to the Nova on Thursday for the Thornton Shorts retrospective. His short Green Bush (26 min, 2004) depicts an autobiographical representation of himself which more clearly depicts his politics and his ambivalence towards the self-destructive behaviours of his community.

BTW, I see from two flat whites that your surname is Nance. I had a maths teacher in the 1970s with that name - any relative?

poignantPoint said...

Thanks Paul, alas I am in Sydney. Though Thornton's short films were screened at the Message Sticks Aboriginal film festival the other week. Unfortunately I didn't have the time to check them out. How amazing that it received a 5 minute standing ovation at Cannes. What a story for all of them!

I don't think there's any relation to your maths teacher.. nor is there any relation to Lynch favourite Jack Nance, hehe.