With its isolated aboriginal characters, expansive desert backdrop, and startling critique of exploitative Australian authorities, “Samson and Delilah” appears to have a lot going on. But Warwick Thornton’s expressive directorial debut is also a knowingly simplistic love story that goes down much easier than its heavy themes. Despite the darkness, it has a cumulative effect that’s agreeably gentle.
The title has both literal and ironic connotations. Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) are neighbors in a remote community on the outskirts of Alice Springs, located in the Central Australian desert. Hardly a muscleman on the level of his Biblical namesake, the mute Samson spends his days staring off into the distance, squinting through the dust, and watching his brother’s reggae band practice while presumably dreaming of a better life. Delilah helps her grandmother paint large canvasses, which a white dealer occasionally shows up to collect for his own means.
When her grandmother suddenly dies, the two characters form a bond entirely through playful glances and off-kilter physical courtship before deciding to leave their boring community and explore the big city. The premise suggests the simplicity of a silent comedy, but the journey into town leads “Samson and Delilah” into a series of bleak encounters with a ferociously unkind populace.
When Samson finally gets to be the hero and rescue his gal from a group of thugs, Thornton finally gives his story a dramatic thrust that deepens its narrative power. Until that late-in-the-game development, however, the movie’s central appeal comes from its hypnotic visuals (filmed by the director), which envision a barren world that actualizes the characters’ mutual longing for some action. At last, they find it — not in the city but in companionship — and the resulting payoff makes the wait worthwhile.
The winner of the 2009 Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, “Samson and Delilah” marks another impressive notch in Australian cinema’s latest eruption onto the world stage. It arrives in American theaters among a series of tightly directed genre films also released this year: “The Square,” “Animal Kingdom” and “Red Hill” all display the talents of Aussie filmmakers with the capacity to create familiar forms of entertainment.
By contrast, “Samson and Delilah” is a patient, neorealistic portrait set in a restrained environment aptly compared by one critic to Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout.” Thorton coaxes believably understated performances from his two amateur actors, whose ability to develop a strong chemistry is particularly admirable since they never speak a word to each other. We hear more chatter on Samson’s radio than any extended dialogue from these two, resulting in a strangely non-sexual courtship that unfolds entirely through smiles and passing glances. If the lack of physical intimacy represents their greater unfulfilled desire to escape from home, then the movie serves as a parable just like the biblical tale referenced in its title. In their silence, the Australian outback comes alive.