Australian filmmaker Warwick Thornton captures a segment of his nation’s Aborigine culture with heartbreaking beauty in “Samson and Delilah,” playing Saturday, October 16, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Australia’s Oscar entry for 2009, the film won a Golden Camera award at Cannes.
“Samson and Delilah” does not echo the Biblical story of the hero with great strength and the duplicitous vamp who saps his strength by cutting his hair. Instead, the movie makes ironic commentary on that myth through two adolescents living in an isolated Aborigine community near Alice Springs. Their names just happen to be Samson and Delilah.
True, Samson, whom we see in the opening shots waking up, has a thick mass of orange-streaked hair. But any resemblance to the Israelite Samson ends there. This Samson’s first act is to inhale gas fumes from a can.
This form of substance abuse brings on hallucinations, euphoria, and dizziness. It kills brain cells and — most importantly in this film — suppresses hunger pangs. There’s nothing in the refrigerator at Samson’s house except gasoline.
Music plays a central role in “Samson and Delilah,” and Charley Pride sings “A Sunshiny Day” on the radio as Samson gets up. He goes outside and plays an electric guitar until his brother grabs it away from him.
Not a single word has been spoken, and the irony of these cheerful musical cues and many others reverberate throughout the movie. Across the way, a devoted Delilah wakes up her grandmother Kitty, and soon the two will start making the Aborigine dot paintings that a white gallery owner pays them a pittance for.
Although they don’t exchange words, it quickly becomes clear that Samson is smitten with Delilah. They communicate by tossing stones and sand at each other, and Delilah initially rejects Samson’s advances. A dramatic change in her situation makes her more receptive, and the boy and girl leave for the city.
The actors who play Samson and Delilah — Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson — were 13 when the movie was filmed, and had no professional training. But they didn’t really need it since they were able to reproduce the culture they were growing up in. The director himself has lived on the streets of Alice Springs.
As isolated and impoverished as their lives in the outback have been, Samson and Delilah discover how brutal the world of the city can be for penniless outsiders like them. Taking one of her dot paintings to a gallery, Delilah finds herself callously rejected.
Shoplifting in a supermarket provides their only food, and they take shelter under a viaduct, where a derelict befriends them and supplements their meager supplies. Almost never, though, do either of these children speak to him. Theirs is a world where language is a secondary form of communication.
As things spiral deeper and deeper towards total despair, viewers may ask themselves why they should watch this merciless tale unfold. It is a mark of Mr. Thornton’s skill as a filmmaker that he can evoke the pathos of Samson’s and Delilah’s lives so powerfully, and the beauty that cinematic imagery, movement, and sound can bring to bear, will keep viewers in their seats.
This Aborigine story deserves to be told, and we who have so much to be thankful for in a nation that even in its present economic disarray provides an abundance that Aborigines can only dream of, need to hear the message of “Samson and Delilah.” Love helps the two survive, and charity is love in the profoundest sense.
“Samson and Delilah,” Saturday, October 16, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theater, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see mvfilmsociety.com.
Brooks Robards, a regular contributor to The Times, divides her time between Oak Bluffs and Northampton.