Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Alas, Sweet Hair

I've not mentioned it here on the blog, since I'm figuring that any readers here that aren't covered by my Twitter and Facebook friend roll are likely already readers of The Film Experience, but just in case you're not, I'm covering the London Film Festival for that most wonderful of blogs for the next couple of weeks, and you can already catch a few mini-review round-ups over there. Nathaniel is kindly allowing me to post any full-length reviews on this here blog, though, which might be just as well with the drought that's preceded them. There's also, you might notice, a continually updated list of screenings at the top of that there sidebar, so you're not missing a thing.

First off, here are my extended thoughts on the ever-cited (and ever-loved) Glenn's favourite Samson and Delilah.

Samson and Delilah has just one connection to the biblical parable with which it shares it's name - the chopping off of hair. But in Warwick Thornton's stunning film, the action is not a vengeful one, but one of grief. At different points in the film, both of the titular characters hack at their long locks with a serrated knife as a mark of a death, an act filmed each time with a painfully close intensity. Frequently the film reaches emotional spikes like these, but it's the strength of the film throughout that makes them so powerful.

Samson (Rowan MacNamara) and Delilah (Marisa Gibson) live in a half-heartedly Westernized, run-down Aboriginal town, with a phone that rings but is never answered. She cares for her grandmother (Mitjili Gibson), who makes her living painting intricate dot paintings, and Nana is all too amused by the antagonistic relationship burgeoning between her grandchild and the lonely Samson, who can't get his brother to move beyond the same repetitive tune he plays all day outside their house, and so spends his time playing in a wheelchair and sniff petrol. The early sequences of the drama are tinged with humour, but also a highly authentic feel of the place, not overemphasizing the barren existance with constant shots of it, but letting sound, image and character draw out a keenly felt depiction. Gibson and MacNamara somehow forge an entirely plausible, and certainly fascinating duo as they silently squabble, observe, intrigue each other. Thornton only occasional uses cinematic tricks, like aural identification (as Samson puts his hands over his ears) or distorted edits (as his petrol addiction worsens), to emphasize our identification with these characters, so it's to the actors immense credit that they not only carry the film but involve you so deeply in the tragic unfolding, while still being detached, volatile and unpredictable.

It's to Thornton's credit, meanwhile, that the film manages to be about so much, and be so insightful about these things, while retaining a disengaged air of mystery and apathy that bespeaks the character's attitudes. Moments like Delilah being beaten by those we assume are her family (and who are otherwise absent from her and her grandmother's life) leave us wondering whether this is some vestige of Aboriginal custom, or merely a similar angry violence that Samson is prey to. The film doesn't explain the Aboriginal place in modern day Australia, merely depicts it - Delilah sees her grandmother's dot paintings selling for high prices in a city art gallery, but they won't give her's a second glance. Is it about love? What exactly does Samson want from Delilah? Their relationship grows into some form of love, but does so without seemingly betraying those aspects of their characters that have defined them to us. If Samson and Delilah is a parable, it disguises it well. This is a powerful journey, a detached yet involving story about a pair you might not understand if you dissect their depiction, but gradually do on some basic human level. A-

1 comment:

Glenn said...

Lovely! So good hearing positive reviews. I too gave it an A- originally, but it haunts like almost nothing in recent memory and I pushed it up.

Just for the record, the old women are village elders and they assault Delilah because they believe she was neglectful of her mother and she died because of it. Elders hold much more significant place in aboriginal culture.