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Samson & Delilah -- Film Review

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SYDNEY -- Poverty, beatings and debilitating substance abuse stand in for hearts and flowers in Warwick Thornton's Aboriginal romance "Samson & Delilah," which focuses on the power of love as a survival tool.

While the bleak realities of life on a neglected indigenous community in the Central Australian desert may be too bitter a pill for the masses, Thornton's empathetic storytelling makes this an early standout on the 2009 Australian film slate. It should have a dream run on the international festival circuit following its showing in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.

From the opening scene, in which 15-year-old Samson (Rowan McNamara) wakes up on a grubby mattress and reaches for a can of petrol to take a deep lungful, we are drawn into the numbing repetitiveness of his dead-end existence.

Thornton, making a remarkably assured feature debut, shot the film himself, taking a hand-held camera into the remote Outback area where he grew up. He draws a potent, documentary-like authenticity from his locations and from his two untrained leads, whose silent glances and clumsily affectionate gestures speak volumes. Minimal dialogue and canny musical interludes add to the understated eloquence as this unconventional love story opens out to its own rhythm.

Samson, who amuses himself by ricocheting about the shanty town in an abandoned wheelchair, is awkward and mute; the object of his teenage desire, Delilah (Marissa Gibson), utters barely a word as she fills her days caring for her ailing grandmother, Kitty (Mitjili Gibson).

A winning drollness accompanies their early, self-conscious courtship dance. But the mood turns grim when the pair are cast out from their community and forced to fend for themselves on the streets of the nearby town center, where the mostly white population views them with wary disdain.

They shelter beneath a bridge with an eccentric alcoholic named Gonzo (the director's brother Scott Thornton), whose garrulous optimism -- embracing a stirring interpretation of Tom Waits' "Jesus Gonna Be Here" -- can't shield them from a shattering series of events that push Samson deeper into his addiction and Delilah to despair.

The stark pain of the second act eases into a conclusion full of symbolism and hope, by which time we are so fully immersed in the lives of these fragile young people that the segue feels totally organic.

Festival de Cannes -- Un Certain Regard
Opened: May 7, Australia

Production company: Scarlett Pictures & Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association Prods.
Cast: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson, Scott Thornton, Mitjili Gibson
Director/screenwriter/director of photography: Warwick Thornton
Producer: Kath Shelper
Production designer: Daran Fulham
Costume designer: Heather Wallace
Editor: Roland Gallois
Sales: Elle Driver, Paris

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No rating, 101 minutes