The body says more than words: Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah

Samson & Delilah 4
Samson & Delilah © Mark Rogers

When it hit the screens in 2009, Warwick Thornton’s first full-length’s Samson & Delilah had already won the Camera d’or at Cannes and was already turning heads. And what everyone was talking about, was, precisely, the lack of dialogue in this « real Aboriginal movie ». As we discovered it’s not that Thornton doesn’t like chatting, but he may have shown another form of human communication.

Hold your words

“Silence and… action !” cries the movie director. Then, the silence he’s longing for, the silence he gets. Five or six sentences maybe, but not more. Samson & Delilah is not about dialogue. Indeed, characters seem to have the will to remain silent, no matter what. And it is actually very disturbing for a Western viewer, whose ears are used to blockbusters’ dull conversations. There are words though. Delilah speaks to her nana (grandmother) every day when they wake up and paint together. The White owner of the grocery store also talks with them. Samson is listening to a radio speaker. The hobo at Alice Springs talks and sings, and is even funny. There are actual words, in English and in Warlpiri. But they seem meaningless. No, what is actually the most fascinating here is the very subject of the movie: the love between Samson and Delilah which doesn’t need any performative words to exist.

Delilah & Nana --
Samson & Delilah © Mark Rogers

Meaningful silence

Once you are used to them being mute, you realize that even if they are not speaking, the two main characters of the story keep communicating with each other through the movie. Indeed, Thornton gives an important role to the body language. First, the eyes : Samson and Delilah are always glancing at each other. Both actors succeed in showing their emotions through their look. Still, you cannot really see love as we, Western viewers, may think about this emotion. No kindness or mawkishness in their eyes, but a deep care and attention for the other. Their bodies never get close either. They never hug and they only kiss once. Samson may try to approach Delilah’s lips, she backs off and grumbles. This is the first sound that she addresses to him. Instead, she just rests her head on his shoulder when they sit under the bridge. In this significant gesture relies the movie’s definition of love and communication. Samson and Delilah don’t need to speak to understand each other. Their body language tells more than any word. The camera work increases this feeling. Most of the time, the two characters are both in the frame. Side by side or on different grounds of the image, Thornton makes them naturally fit together.

Warwick Thornton teaches the two actors how to stare at each other.

Bad cliché?

Nevertheless, this body language seems sometimes brutal. They fight like children with their hands and fists, they grumble and they shout. In the Aboriginal village where they live, there is also a latent violence due to the vicious circle of habits, and which leads Samson to beat his brother up with a stick. Thus, this silent but rough world in which the characters evolve raises a debated matter about the Aborigines and the myth of “nobles and savages”. As Frances Peters-Little discusses in his article “Nobles and savages on the television” published in 2003 in the Aboriginal History Journal, there are still images in the contemporary medias, and more specifically in the Australian film and television industries, that “reflect Rousseau’s desires for the noble savage”. The author explains that moving from the binary framework of nobles and savages remains a difficult task, and illustrates his thesis with some specific examples. One of them tackles the representation of voiceless Aborigines in nature and wildlife documentaries, which raises the idea that they “are childlike and incapable of taking control or speaking for themselves”. Samson & Delilah is an almost silent film about a love story between two young Aborigines. Could it be just a big cliché of the genre? Actually, as Warwick Thornton explains on the movie’s official website, « communication is not necessarily verbal » in Central Australia. Instead, people uses hand signals, as one can see at the beginning of the film between the two main chracters. They’re discrete but efficient to communicate over (more or less) long distances. As Thornton writes it, they are also used to « keep quiet when you entered someone else’s land ».

The boundary of language

Samson cannot even speak out his name properly. He seems to make a huge effort to pronounce it, as if the language were a difficult obstacle to get over. As if there were a boundary to cross between the unspeaking inside and the spoken outside. Indeed, this boundary does exist in the movie. When the words come out from the White’s mouths, they all are negative: the gallery owner refuses to sell Delilah’s painting, the others don’t want to buy it. Even the grocer’s “yes” is conditional. Samson understands words but cannot speak his owns. Delilah’s seem ritual : her nana’s awakening and the song she sings when the old woman dies don’t make any sense out of the usual context of habits. On the other hand, the Spanish song she listens to every night in the car touches her deeply. Through this song, Thornton shows Delilah’s point of view on, precisely, Samson’s body, even though she doesn’t understand the lyrics. Nevertheless, melody and atmosphere in this song reveals a desire that Delilah tries to bury up inside. Finally, words seem to define a world where the characters don’t belong. Instead, their feelings and emotions are placed on another layer of comprehension. The one that doesn’t suffer the misunderstanding of spoken language or the boundary of materialized communication. The one that only a body can speak.

Samson & Delilah 2 --
Samson & Delilah © Mark Rogers

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