Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 18, 2010 2:50 pm 
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Star-crossed lovers in the Outback

Samson and Delilah is a terribly sad and touching tale of an Australian aboriginal boy and girl. The film, which won the Caméra d'Or award at Cannes for the best first feature, and "golden camera" suits its warm, luminous images, has a long downward trajectory that rights itself just in time toward the end. There is the comfort of a moment of mild hope when the teenage couple settles, after desperate times, in a remote Outback location. We leave them at peace, the girl returning to her craft of making paintings for sale to Alice Springs galleries, the boy attempting to end his substance abuse. A romantic song declares that they will always have each other, thus underlining that this is not a tract or horror film but a love story, and that a cinema of identity is also a cinema of hope. Songs are well used, and so is light. Thornton shows a sure touch and knows how to tell a story, conveying clear messages in long wordless takes that draw you in and grab your heart.

This is a first feature by a young aboriginal director, who wrote, shot, and directed (editing is bey Roland Gallois). Thornton takes us into the lives of his characters with sensitivity and delicacy, and all the vividness of an Italian neorealist film. Samson (Rowan McNamarra) lives in a nearly empty house with his brother, who spends the day out front with a little band playing the same reggae song over and over. Samson grabs a guitar and tries some riffs every day, and is chased away. He consoles himself morning and night by sniffing gasoline. He becomes attracted to Delilah (Marissa Gibson), who sleeps nearby and cares for her aging, ailing Nana (Mitjili Gibson), and spends part of each day making paintings with her. These are bought by a gallery owner for a small fee and sold in Alice Springs for tens of thousands of dollars. Deilialh also pushes her grandma in a rickety wheelchair to a ragged health center and to a chapel where she sits a while and prays.

Samsom's overtures to Delilah are crude. He scribbles a message on the wall, throws stones at her, and throws his mattress over the fence into her property. Their relationship is largely wordless. When anyone around does speak, it's in aboriginal language, except to exchange a few words with The Man, in this case the gallery owner. The early encounters between the pair are rough but also playful and funny.

One day follows another, though the two kids seem to be waking up closer together. Delilah amuses herself sitting in a car listening to a cassette tape of Latin music. One evening Samson does a wild, sexy dance where she can see. Eventually the morning comes when Delilah wakes up to find her grandma dead. In mourning the girl cuts off her hair with a bread knife. Higher than usual, Samson attacks one of the musicians, and is beaten. The girl is beaten with sticks too, by family members who accuse her of causing her grandma's death by misusing her or not giving her her medications.

Impulsively Samson and Delilah run away to Alice Springs in a stolen truck. He siphons off a bottle of gas from a car to keep going, and begins sniffing gasoline almost continually. From then on things get worse and worse. They wind up sleeping under a bridge near a once reasonably well off aboriginal man called Gonzo (Scott Thornton) who has declined through drink. Gonzo, who has a gaiety about him, and speaks only English, provides the kids with food, mostly noodles. They shop at a grocery store and Samson steals some extras. They're close now, a couple too miserable to make love but linked by affection, always together, huddling close at night, still hardly speaking. But in this dire situation Samson's gas sniffing becomes more constant and his condition more comatose, so he barely seems to notice when Delilah is swept away in a car by white boys to be raped and beaten. She returns later under the bridge, all bloody. And it gets worse.

Somehow they're rescued only to be taken back where they came, where they're beaten and chased off again for past crimes. And this is where things get better, because they drive off to Delilah's first home and find a kind of refuge.

Samson and Delilah is unbearably sad and rather like a fable, yet also full of realistic detail, such as the white people in Alice Springs, and the bad conditions the aboriginals live in in the Outback. In a detailed discussion of the film and its context Richard Phillips of the World Socialist Web Site explains how recent discriminatory laws in Australia have forced aborigines out of remote settlements like the ones shown here into more crowded and urban compounds where the health and social conditions are rapidly declining. Phillips says what young aboriginals in the Outback suffer today is generally still harsher than what happens in the film. In particular he says, Thornton, for reasons of his own, doesn't show the abuse by police aboriginals suffer around Alice Springs.

This film is another step toward an aboriginal cinema made by aboriginal people (in contrast to a few fine efforts by outsiders like Bruce Beresford's 1986 The Fringe Dwellers). It's very different from the beautiful but relatively escapist 2006 Ten Canoes (co-directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr), which dramatizes a traditional fable. Both approaches to aboriginal culture and experience are valid and both stories need to be told.

Included in the New Directors/New Films series co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and screened at both MoMA and the Walter Reade Theater in March 2010.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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