FILM OCTOBER 20, 2010
Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
Samson & Delilah
No director has surpassed Margarethe von Trotta in depth of concern for women on the screen. Others, very many, have made all sorts of good films about women, their social situation and history and beings. But von Trotta has an advantage over most of them: she is an exceptionally fine artist. Very few other films about women come close to the von Trotta quality. (Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, for one instance.) But Sisters, or the Balance of Happiness and Marianne and Juliane, each of which is about a pair of sisters, must rank among the gems of the last century. Further, as if to show that women are integral parts of what is often considered a man’s world, Marianne and Juliane is the best film I know about the conflict between liberalism and radicalism. Von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg and Rosenstrasse prove even further that the term “political art” is not necessarily an oxymoron.
Now, with different daring, von Trotta has gone back into the Middle Ages. The daring becomes increasingly manifest as the film progresses. Vision tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, a German Benedictine nun who was born in the year 1098 and worked through most of the twelfth century. It goes without saying, and thus perhaps should be said first, that the making of the film is superb. The nuns’ habits fill the screen much of the time, and their large, white coifs make their faces even more pictorial. The camera work by Axel Block, often seemingly done in candlelight, makes what we see temporally true. Von Trotta’s central subject in the film is containment, pro and con: most of the picture takes place within walls. She uses old churches and religious buildings to convey a blend of authority and refuge. Within those walls Hildegard is sometimes content, sometimes not.
It was daring of von Trotta to build a story on issues that, fierce in their day, seem less pertinent now. We can guess it was precisely this seeming lack of immediacy that attracted her. The struggles in Rosa Luxemburg would naturally shake us more quickly than Hildegard’s insistence on the truth of her divine revelations or on having a separate convent for her and her sisters. (Her band of nuns had been sharing a communal cloister, with nuns and monks having separate living quarters but otherwise commingled.) Here it takes a figurative moment to adjust our private scale of drama to Hildegard’s time and environment: to relish her courage in changing cloister procedure, in furthering herbal medicine, in adjusting disciplines, in writing books and songs and plays. As we come to understand, these were the equivalents of more easily recognized modern moments of independence and strength.
Our understanding is quickened by two principal forces: the intensity of von Trotta’s admiration for this nun and Barbara Sukowa’s performance. Surely it is time for wider recognition of Sukowa’s talent. She has been in films for over thirty years, but her appearances have been so infrequent, so unengineered by slick management, that it just happens to have slipped by us that Sukowa is one of the best living actresses. Her radiance in Berlin Alexanderplatz and her fire in Marianne and Juliane are only two of the memories that prepare us for her Hildegard. Even though the nun doesn’t give Sukowa the range that some previous roles have provided, her presence endows Hildegard—and the film—with stature and glow.
Though Vision cannot be quite as moving as some of von Trotta’s past work, its existence is certainly an occasion for gratitude. At the end, when Hildegard rides forth to preach in the countryside, to reach more people, innovating as she goes, we can, whatever our beliefs, sense heroism.
A film that is called Samson & Delilah has nothing to do with the Book of Judges or Milton. This time those are the names of two teenage Australian aboriginals today, in a desert reserve. Apparently the film-makers noted that some of these people have wonderfully unexpected names and decided to make use of this fact. The story, too, has not the slightest suggestion of the original. The very absence of such connection is part of the point.
“Film-makers” should almost be singular. The film was written, directed, shot, and scored by one man—Warwick Thornton. He is an Australian who has worked as a cinematographer and has directed shorts and television. This, his first feature, subtly and skillfully made, announces the arrival of a talent-several of them, in one man.
He begins with the waking Samson. (Throughout, there is a good deal of waking and sleeping.) Samson, in his mid-teens and somehow blond, rouses out of his bedclothes to the sound of country-style music, rises in his flimsy little house, and proceeds as usual to do nothing. Oh, there are three or four musicians rehearsing nearby, and Samson grabs a guitar and strums for a while; but soon he is chased away. He then spends a good deal of the morning wheeling around this scruffy village in the middle of nowhere in an abandoned old wheelchair—just for kicks.
Delilah, about his age and attractive, wakes in a similar hovel, where she lives with her grandmother. The two soon get to work painting designs on paper and cloth. The first white man we see is a dealer who comes to take some of their finished work, which he will sell for them somewhere—obviously a longstanding arrangement.
Samson and Delilah know each other, though they seemingly never speak to each other. (In fact, these two say less in the course of the film than any central film pair I can remember.) He takes to hanging around, at a little distance. Grandma chuckles and, moderately obscenely, urges Delilah to go off with him and “talk.” Delilah sternly declines. Then he tails her to and through a supermarket. No response from her. Next day would seem to be the same, except that at the last moment in the supermarket she tosses a bit of packaged food at him. Through all this mere maneuvering, which—to an outsider—seems to be based in some sort of tribal decorum, we sense a relationship growing.
All of it, it must be emphasized, takes place in golden sun, bathing this bleak environment in long shadows and gorgeous skies that seem to be the source of the textile designs that we see. Soon Delilah accidentally catches a glimpse of Samson—he thinks he is alone—doing a solo erotic dance out in the desert. (Possibly related: he has a habit of getting slightly high by sniffing gasoline fumes.) This heightens her interest. His has already been heightened, we infer, and he must sense that she is interested, that her silence is proper behavior. In what is apparently further proper local style, he announces his intent simply by carrying his mattress over to her and her grandmother’s house one day. From here on, he and Delilah do a lot of sleeping together—literally. Just sleeping, not far from each other.
Each of them soon suffers a violent beating from other villagers for different reasons—he because of the guitar, she because of her grandmother—and they steal the community car and flee. This flight, like most of the film, takes place wordlessly. They are clearly now a pair, though they hardly ever speak to or touch each other. They reach a sizable town, and, almost penniless, take shelter under a viaduct, virtually as the guest of a friendly white hobo—played by the director’s brother, Scott Thornton—whose chief complaint about them is that they never talk to him.
Their taciturnity reaches further. One day Samson is walking ahead when, in the background, we see two white men jump out of a car, grab Delilah, pull her into it, and drive off. Samson seems to accept her disappearance as an inevitability, and when she returns to the viaduct some time later, her face battered-and surely having been raped—he expresses his feelings by behaving as if nothing had happened. He accepts it, and so does she. The idea of their going to the police is ludicrous—two vagrants under a viaduct. Anyway, the kidnapping and abuse of aboriginal girls is apparently not unusual. (The extraordinary texture of this film is its silent bearing of what is ill as well as what is good.) In time, after subsequent adventures, they return to their community. The last shot—even though it, too, is silent—is comparatively a moment of eloquence.
Thornton’s film has two mutually supportive themes. First, obviously, the sociological one, familiar but still abrasive, of the socio-economic situation of the aboriginals. (We can have our own thoughts about the United States and Native Americans.) But Thornton’s major theme is change in, yet survival of, tradition. This young pair, though they bear foreign names, seem to be the children of centuries of certain standards of endurance, dignity despite squalor, violence undergone, understandings that need not be spoken. Apparently Thornton has taken what he understands as the aboriginal persona, considerably battered by the present, and used it as the medium for his love story.
The lead performances by Marissa Gibson and Rowan McNamara are more disturbances in our old beliefs about acting. Gibson has done only a bit of previous acting, McNamara none, yet under Thornton’s careful hand they give us these two people, genuinely, spontaneously. By now it is a fact of film history that some of the most memorable acting has come from non-actors. These youngsters add to the paradox. One of Thornton’s gifts, certainly, is that he has helped these two young people to achieve it.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the November 11, 2010, issue of the magazine.