Samson & Delilah Review
We're in a small Aboriginal community in central Australia. Fourteen-year-old Samson (Rowan McNamara) lives alone. His brother's band constantly plays reggae outside his window - and they don’t take kindly to Samson wanting a go on the guitar. Meanwhile, Delilah (Marissa Gibson) looks after her Nana (Mitjili Gibson, who steals every scene she's in) who trades her traditional artworks for goods from the local store. Then events cause Samson and Delilah to leave the town for nearby Alice Springs...
Dialogue is and can be an important part of the cinematic art, and for some filmmakers (Eric Rohmer, Joseph H. Mankiewicz, the Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, to name but three) it is a vital part of it. But ultimately a film like Samson & Delilah reminds us that cinema is primarily a visual medium. Warwick Thornton’s remarkable first feature takes showing-not-telling to an extreme. Samson & Delilah has less dialogue than any other film I can think of that I’ve seen this decade with the possible exception of Kim Ki-Duk’s 3-Iron. Yet it doesn’t need it. Everything you need to know is told in the faces and body language of the two leading actors, non-professionals both.
Samson and Delilah aren’t overly educated, nor are they articulate. Samson’s declaration of love is to throw a rock at Delilah’s back. The possibilities of condescension and sentimentality in the script and direction (both by Thornton, an Aboriginal) are enormous, but for the most part they are avoided. This is a love story in the purest sense: a love of companionship and intimacy. Many filmmakers would convey such mutual affection via a sex scene, as convenient cinematic shorthand. But Thornton doesn’t do this. It’s never clear if this couple are non-platonic, but we don’t need to have this spelled out as their mutual dependence is clear enough.
Thornton takes us through a day in the life of the community to establish that there’s nothing to do. With the boredom comes substance abuse: Samson is given to draining petrol from cars or motorbikes and sniffing it, the main reason for this film’s MA rating. Samson has just one word of dialogue in the entire film – his name, stuttered out. Delilah says a little bit more, mostly in her conversations with grandmother, conducted in the Aboriginal language Warlpiri. However, their silence is made up for by the volubility of Gonzo (Scott Thornton, the director’s brother), a tramp they meet on the road.
Some may find Samson & Delilah a little too slow-burning, and its entire approach disconcerting. Some terrible events happen to deadpan reactions from the two leads, but it’s only in the latter stages (with some rather on-the-nose songs on the soundtrack) that the film falters a little. But all in all, the film is a remarkable achievement for Warwick Thornton, who not only wrote and directed, but also photographed the film (very well) and also played on the soundtrack.
Samson & Delilah won the Camera d'Or (Best First Feature) at the 2009 Cannes Festival. It won seven Australian Film Institute Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, the AFI Members' Choice Award and the AFI Young Actor Award (to both Rowan McNamara and Marisssa Gibson). It is also Australia's official submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. It is due to have a British cinema release in April 2010.
Madman's DVD release of Samson & Delilah comprises two dual-layered discs encoded for Region 4 only.
The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It's a first-rate transfer dominated by reds and oranges, the colour of the sands of central Australia. Blacks are solid and colours spot-on.
There are two soundtracks, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround, both with a mix of English and Warlpiri dialogue This is always clear, though there isn't much use of the surrounds except for ambience and Thornton's music score. White non-removable subtitles translate the Warlpiri dialogue. There are no hard-of-hearing subtitles.
There is no commentary. The extras on the first disc begin with an interview with Thornton by Margaret Pomeranz from ABC Television's At the Movies (5:02) and from the same network's Sunday Arts by Fenella Kernebone (13:45). Thornton says much the same things in both, though the latter – being longer – also includes film extracts. Also on the first disc is the theatrical trailer (2:03) and Madman Propaganda. The latter begins with a Samson & Delilah anti-piracy ad and comprises trailers for Last Ride, Balibo, Wake in Fright and My Year Without Sex.
For some reason my DVD player would not play the second disc. I was able to watch it on my PC (running PowerDVD), though it had problems with the short film Mimi, causing it to freeze often and playing the last couple of minutes mute.
Disc Two begins with a comprehensive making-of documentary, “Making Samson & Delilah” (55:07), directed by Beck Cole (Warwick Thornton's wife). This takes us from the original idea for the film to its premiere at Cannes. Casting is covered in some detail: Rowan McNamara was the first boy they saw for Samson, though finding a Delilah was much harder.
The disc is rounded out by four of Warwick Thornton's short films, presented in reverse chronological order. “Nana” (5:50), from 2007, is something of a dry run for the feature, as it explores a young girl's relationship with her Nana (played again by Mitjili Gibson). Made in 2005, “Green Bush” (26:05) is a comedy-drama about a single night at an Aboriginal community radio station. In 2002's “Mimi” (14:38), a young woman (Sophie Lee) buys an Aboriginal artwork and gets more than she bargained for. David Gulpilil is on hand to sort things out in this comedy-fantasy. Finally, “Payback” (10:18) is a black-and-white piece where a man in prison is visited by a ghost who warns of payback on his impending release. All four shorts are in the ratio of 1.85:1 and have Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks. All are anamorphically enhanced except for “Payback”, which looks to have been mastered from a video source.
Finally, Disc Two has some more Madman Propaganda. Following the same anti-piracy ad as on the first disc are trailers for Romulus, My Father, Ten Canoes, Noise and Candy.