There’s something about the Australian landscape that just feels right. A warm-hued blend of mystery, danger, and possibility, the “bush” is at the heart of myriad Australian films. As Samson & Delilah begins, the desert serves as an eerily picturesque backdrop for a broken-down town. It is natural, yet the natural is boring, the familiar repetitious, and the everyday suffocating—even debilitating. Our first protagonist, Samson, is an aimless teen who meanders the streets in a wheelchair, alone. To cope, he inhales fumes, keeping a can of gasoline or paint by his bed roll. Delilah, conversely, is a caregiver to her aging Nana, who needs medication and, unlike Samson, can’t move without a wheelchair. Nana, however, is a remarkable painter of traditional geometric forms, her income just enough for food and fire but little else.
The film grows with slow strokes, yet its movements are carefully intentioned. As the mundaneness of the village becomes oppressive, Samson and Delilah strike out for the city, swapping their “country” for that—as Nana might say—of a different “skin.” In the city, the teens are homeless, living under a bridge on stolen food and the charity of an older, addicted “neighbor.” Here the film shows its greatest strength: bringing the ordinary into odd relief. In a foreign landscape, Samson and Delilah are lost, vulnerable, and unwanted. While the city presents endless opportunities, none are open to them. Nevertheless, Delilah begins to paint—she has learned much from her Nana—but her art remains invisible, swallowed up by her poverty and her dark skin. She is ignored, voiceless much like her traveling companion who is beset by a stutter.
The city is hollow, cold, busy and thereby unwilling to listen to the stories written on these characters’ bodies. In a particularly chilling scene, a churchman watches as Delilah, bruised and dirty, wanders out of the church when she realizes she isn’t alone. They are, however, rescued and Delilah chooses to rebuild their lives as many Australian protagonists do: on the frontier. There she thrives: caring for Samson as he recovers from substance abuse, hunting for food, and painting. She is, it would seem, complete, and in many ways I would argue her completeness is a return of the landscape—its freedom and beauty. The desert, like the city, presents many possibilities for life, yet in the desert life is taken on one’s own terms. For Delilah, a minority teenage artist, this makes all the difference.
A quiet film, Samson & Delilah is a compelling, artful, and important portrait of voicelessness of poverty and minority as well as the resilience and power of the artist’s hands. Delilah’s hands carry this story: caring, feeding, comforting, and unveiling beauty at the darkest and brightest of times. To me, this film is one that critiques the “art world” from the inside, speaking the common language of fine cinematography but cutting at the insulation of the sterile gallery from the dirty spaces people actually live in. Dirt, it could be said, is essential to art—this film one such testament to the weight of the artist’s voice at the fringes. This challenge is always timely, here put so powerfully and poetically to a film that rewards an open, patient viewer.