You won’t be alone if you come out of Samson and Delilah in a dream-like state, as the mesmerising power of this new Australian film is overwhelming. Once you come back to your senses you may find yourself becoming suddenly aware that such a film is long overdue. Cinematic representations of contemporary Indigenous Australians are extremely rare, yet alone representations of the communities living in abject poverty in central and northern Australia. However, Samson and Delilah is not a didactic, social-realist issue film with an axe to grind, but a skilfully crafted teen romance that is as beautiful as it is confronting. Set in an isolated community in the Australian desert, Samson and Delilah is about the growing understated love between two Indigenous Australian teenagers. While Delilah looks after her ill grandmother, Samson spends his days sniffing petrol, begging and generally being a nuisance. They have little in common but after both becoming victims of violence they team up, leave their community and head to Alice Springs to fend for themselves.
Samson and Delilah at times evokes the early works of Martin Scorsese, especially Scorsese’s use of subjectivity which in turn had been influenced by 60s and 70s European art house cinema. The open shot of Samson waking up to the sound of his brother’s band strongly evokes the opening of Mean Streets where Charlie wakes up to the sounds of New York City. However, instead of an American urban environment, Samson and Delilah must negotiate the streets and fringes of an Australian city, which are filled with the indifferent, the desperate, the exploitive and the predatory.
Non-professional locals were cast instead of trained actors to ensure that all the performers ‘owned’ their stories. The results are incredibly successful. The entire cast inhabit each role tremendously but Rowan McNamara as Samson and Marissa Gibson as Delilah are absolute revelations. Gibson is a natural in front of the camera and has the extraordinary ability to convey Delilah’s inner strength in just one look. McNamara possesses an unpredictable, rebellious energy and at times he embodies the spirit of a young Heath Ledger.
Samson and Delilah is the first feature by writer/director Warwick Thornton and it is an astonishing début. Thornton’s background as a cinematographer is evident as the film’s immaculately composed and predominantly static cinematography allows the nuances of the relationship between Samson and Delilah to be fully expressed with virtually no dialogue. For most of the film an impressive sound design evocatively substitutes for dialogue, helping to establish its steady, hypnotic pace. Brief bursts of violence and trauma therefore contain maximum impact without ever feeling exploitive. Samson and Delilah is extraordinarily powerful and very much adheres to the “don’t say what you can show” rule of filmmaking. It’s an excellent example of visual storytelling, a compelling slow burning story, and it truly feels like the beginning of something new and special in Australian cinema.