I was so pleased in today's seminar (last class for two months! Hurray!), that when asked about which one Australian text they'd choose to make Year 12 students study, somebody nominated Samson & Delilah and other people agreed. (NOBODY voted for Voss. Which is a datum ripe for investigating, because it was a school book when I was a school child, and I went to a technical school, and nobody objected to it specifically any more than they objected to having to study books at all.) Anyway, Samson & Delilah is such a terrific film - entirely deserving of the recognition it's got at Cannes and of the packed audiences it's attracting here at home - and just when I'd begun to think the local film industry was really and truly permanently stuffed, along it comes, almost out of nowhere, because I understand that the director and writer Warwick Thornton has not made a feature film before this one.
It's such an incredibly difficult thing to do, to begin with, to make a piece of art about traumatic subject matter. It's a minefield actually. Over-aestheticising and disappearing up one's own art-cinema-hole is a problem; creating emotional pornography is a problem, especially when rape is depicted; getting into a black pit and wallowing there is a big problem, but so is the ethically suspect Schindler's List technique of inflicting upliftingness on a story that is actually anything but. Samson & Delilah negotiates all this so well that not only does it avoid traps but it positively and meaningfully steers the storytelling, with integrity and purposefulness. That's what 'directing' means, actually. The effect of this for the (white) spectator is that the film always feels underwritten or guaranteed - you don't doubt that the movie is doing what it's doing for good reasons - which is indispensably necessary when the film shows things that are very hard to witness and which are not so easy to understand.
What it reminded me of was Robert Bresson, especially Mouchette; only perhaps better, in that some aspects of Bresson's style which in his films don't really rise above the beautiful and poetic acquire ethical valence in S & D, and this in turn strips off some of the noli me tangere aura of high culture that art films can be damaged and limited by.
A stray comment I read years ago about some German filmmakers is exactly applicable to the style and method of Samson & Delilah: it's a film that knows exactly where to set up the camera in relation to the characters. Not so distant that we can't form a human relationship with them - but not so close either that we invade their privacy. The very careful limiting of talking in the movie is doing exactly this too. No talking between Delilah and Samson sharpens our need to interpret them both, Delilah especially, but it also makes us know that we can't just frictionlessly colonise their inner lives. That tension between wanting to have every private emotion revealed to us in the easy manner we're familiar with, and also willing these two people (again, Delilah in particular) to find a space where their physical and emotional sovereignty is respected, is very productive for the film and very pwerful for a white audience (I don't mean to suggest that the film is for whites or that a white reading of it is what matters, but I do wish lots of Australians would go and see this movie as enthusiastically as we went to see Australia.) The film repeats and reconfigures that doubled tension between wanting to see private meanings, and learning to hope for the survival of meanings screened or opaque to 'our' eyes, in all kinds of subtle, natural ways. I loved the tape Delilah listens to each night (and I wonder if that's an intentional echo of Never Let Me Go?), and the series of events related to the uses of painting is incredibly rich and thoughtful.
There was much in the movie that I found quite mysterious and much too that is horrible - the violence and the despair, the indifference of various white people to Delilah's injuries and obvious distress. It doesn't seem like a betrayal of these elements that the film allows both Samson and Delilah to survive, and I haven't yet managed to work out why that is. I'd like to see it again, and soon.