Shame fills the long silences in Samson and Delilah, a rare feature film from an Aboriginal filmmaker from Australia. Warwick Thornton’s directorial debut won the prestigious Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival; French actress Isabelle Adjani, who was on the jury, described it as “the best love film we’ve seen for many a year.”

It is a thoroughly tough-going love story, though, because it is also a story of addiction and a shameful story of the country’s remote indigenous communities. Many millions of dollars have not redressed what a couple hundred years of white settlement has done to wreck an ancient culture in Australia, and Samson and Delilah communicates too well the listlessness of life in the town camps in the desert there.

Alcoholism and child sexual abuse were among the reasons that more than three years ago the federal government controversially began an “intervention,” taking away rights to bring alcohol and otherwise legal adult materials into these communities — action denounced as racist by the United Nations and defended as necessary by its proponents.

Petrol sniffing — the life-threatening, brain-wrecking taking of vapors of gasoline — is another plague on the communities, and it is this addiction that is at the center of this demanding film.

First-time Aboriginal actor Rowan McNamara, age 14 at the time of filming, plays the gasoline-sniffing Samson, adrift in the derelict community near Alice Springs. Sniffers tend to be people bored and without means to other drugs or alcohol, and, the experts say, kids on the fringe, without family ties. So it is here. Mr. McNamara’s costar is the coltish Marisa Gibson, and eventually her character too puts her face to the fumes.

There are bursts of restless energy, but generally the film has such a stillness that you sense the need to slow your pulse to stay in sync. What little is spoken is mostly in the Central Australian language Warlpiri. In Samson and Delilah, Mr. Thornton (who shot as well as directed) illuminates many of the chronic cliches of Aboriginal Australia, but with an authenticity that makes it even harder to bear.

— Lauren Martin

Samson and Delilah screens at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 16 at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. For details, visit