Thursday, October 14, 2010

From the Outback to the Streets: Samson & Delilah

Australia is a Commonwealth country, but it has roughly 150 living indigenous languages (though the majority of those are considered endangered). By capturing the life and language of a central Australian Aboriginal community, Warwick Thornton’s feature debut Samson & Delilah (trailer here) earned considerable attention as the country’s official 2009 submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration. After a bit of a wait, the Cannes Camera D’Or winner finally begins its regular theatrical engagement in New York this Friday.

With names like Samson and Delilah, it would seem like the two young aboriginal teenagers were meant to be together. Yet, as the film opens, both will need some convincing, particularly the distinctly unimpressed Delilah. Her ailing grandmother is all for it though. Eventually, they somewhat warm to each other, but when the elder women of the community turn against Delilah under tragic circumstances, she and Samson leave their hardscrabble homes to live on the streets of the big city. This turns out to be a harrowing mistake.

Delilah was a responsible young woman, content to take care of her aging Nana. By contrast, Samson could euphemistically be called a troubled youth. A compulsive huffer with anger management issues, he could use some growing up. As a result, he is probably not the best partner to face the dangers of homelessness with—a fact Thornton viscerally drives home in spades.

Watching S&D is a bit like stepping in front of a speeding freight train. Beyond naturalistic, its brutal realism can be overwhelming. While it might be difficult to watch at times, Thornton exerts a rather masterful control over the audience’s emotional responses. He also has a shrewd ear for soundtrack music, whipsawing viewers from the effectively anachronistic country of Charlie Pride to the ever present garage ska band chugging away outside Samson’s squat window.

Thornton’s young leads are disturbingly realistic as the street-dwelling teens. Marissa Gibson is truly heart-rending as Delilah, while as Samson, Rowan McNamara gives a rather courageous performance, portraying all his irresponsibility and manifold character weaknesses. Indeed, despite its tangible anger regarding the inequities faced by Aboriginal Australians, S&D never lets its characters off the hook for their personal failings.

S&D is a tough, uncompromising film. Though Warwick risks wallowing in the degradation of his protagonists, his relentless realism is always honest to their traumatic story and mean circumstances. Like Jay Rosenblatt’s The Darkness of Day, it is definitely recommended, but only to those not predisposed to chronic depression. It opens this Friday (10/15) in Manhattan at the Village East and in Brooklyn at IndieScreen.