In the high-tech, pixel-perfect world of today's cinema, there's been an interesting return to neorealism in both indie and international scene. From English films like Fish Tank and This Is England to U.S. indies such as Wendy and Lucy to Rwanda's Munyurangabo (just to name a few), there seems to be a countertrend in cinema toward reality-based dramas, films with an uncompromising dedication to the day-to-day triumphs and tragedies of ordinary people.
Australia, which has been enjoying some critical attention as of late, adds Samson and Delilah to that list of sparse, intimately produced dramas. Narratively austere but visually arresting, writer-director Warwick Thornton's bleak foray into rural Aussie life slowly but surely pulls you into its unadorned Aboriginal world, making clear the ugly culture clashes and grim ghettoization that continue to infect the land down under.
Cast with nonprofessional actors, this mostly wordless and defiantly unromantic love story probes the relationship that develops between the petrol-sniffing Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson), who lives across the road with her grandmother (Mitjili Gibson). Driven into a nearby city, the two outcasts make their home under a bridge with a disturbed homeless guy (played by the filmmaker's real-life alcoholic brother, Scott Thornton). Delilah struggles to improve their situation despite the violence urban living can bring while Samson falls deeper into his aimless addiction.
If it sounds grim, it is. But there's a poignancy to these damaged characters and their desire to find a place in the world, even if it's only with each other. The unsparing and stark storytelling recalls the work of the Dardenne brothers, but Thornton's visual palette is so much more dynamic, exploding across the screen with images that are hard to forget and harder to ignore. He is a director who understands that film is a visual medium, and exploits that fact for every atmospheric frame he can produce.
Where Samson And Delilah struggles is in its narrative sophistication. There's nothing wrong with telling a simple tale well, but Thornton's treatment is too random and episodic to fully engage — especially given his more offbeat choices and details — particularly the characters' interactions with nature. Still, he beautifully captures the sights, sounds and rhythms of fringe-dwellers, making clear their alienation and dislocation from the European-style community they haunt.
His two leads, McNamara and Gibson, are so authentically rendered (neither had any acting experience) that the film takes on a documentary-style urgency, as if we are experiencing their lives in real time. Samson only speaks once in the film, and Delilah little more than that, yet three-dimensional individuals emerge, allowing us to see past the dysfunctional surfaces and into their hearts. It's an astonishingly transparent achievement in performance.
To say that Samson and Delilah isn't for everyone is an understatement. It is the kind of challenging film that requires both an open mind and open heart. Beneath its unsavory trappings, Thornton, who avoids the impulse to indulge in cultural nihilism, finds life, love and even a reason to hope.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, March 4-5, and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 6.
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