Illegal immigration, whimsical romance and slapstick comedy make for curious bedfellows in “Samba,” the latest effort from French directing pair Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who struck it huge in 2011 with their previous film, comedy-drama “The Intouchables.”
The pair have re-teamed with charismatic leading man Omar Sy, who plays the eponymous Samba, a Senegalese immigrant who’s lived undocumented in Paris for a decade with only his legal-resident uncle Lamouna (the excellent Youngar Fall) for backup. At the film’s open, an ostentatious, “Goodfellas”–esque tracking shot — one of few concessions to technical flashiness amid a low-key, realist aesthetic — leads us through a restaurant kitchen to Samba, who ekes out a living as a member of the cleaning staff. A bureaucratic snafu soon sees our man spirited from kitchen to immigration detention centre, where he must rely on the help of sympathetic but stressed-out case workers.
One such worker is scatty Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg, of “Nymphomaniac” fame), who immediately takes a shine to Samba, the intensity of which stretches the boundaries of professionalism: she’s advised by a colleague not to give him her number, but she does anyway. The pair strike up a friendship when Samba is eventually released back into Paris, but it seems, initially at least, that he’s just not that into her. Instead, in what might most accurately be described as a dick move, he tracks down the wife-to-be of his former cellmate (the unsubtly-named Jonah), and seduces her. It’s refreshing that Samba isn’t portrayed as a spotlessly nice guy, but something of a dreamer with the occasional reckless impulse. Sy clearly relishes the opportunity to inhabit a three-dimensional character.
Meanwhile, we soon discover that the perma-wide-eyed Alice — a kind of Manic Pixie Nightmare Social Worker — is volunteering because she suffered a nervous breakdown at her last high-powered job. It would be easy to sympathize with her were it not for the filmmakers’ insistence on directly matching her travails against those of Samba. Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)
Shortly after Samba is released from detention, he justifiably erupts at Alice’s inept attempts at helping him to plan his next steps. She responds by screaming back in his face “Think this is easy for me?! Just tone it down! I’m tired!” Astonishingly, Samba spends the next scene reassuring her. It’s a stunningly tone-deaf moment, and this dynamic is one that is never satisfactorily resolved. “Samba” rarely strays into egregious “white saviour” territory — Alice is too much of a hot mess for that to be the case — yet the filmmakers’ uncritical treatment of her inherent social privilege lends proceedings an uncomfortably patronizing air. Neither do Nakache and Toledano ever really attempt to get at the deeper social and political context informing the status of characters like Samba and Lamouna. Sure, they’re aiming for wide play — and they clearly don’t want to harrow or hector audiences — but a little more grit wouldn’t have hurt.
Much more successful are the sharply-observed scenes which convey the quiet stresses peppering Samba’s existence. There’s a great, brief scene depicting Samba talking to his mother on a payphone: he offers her a poignantly embellished account of his success in order to put her worried mind at rest. This sequence says more about Samba’s character than the Oscar-reel showboat moment which depicts him larking around an empty shopping center (where he has been employed as a security guard) to the sounds of ‘To Know You Is To Love You’ by Stevie Wonder and Syreeta. Also notable is Benjamin Vassuer’s excellent location work: train stations, cafes, gas stations and even rooftops are utilized for evocative, Edward Hopper-esque, effect.
One can’t write about “Samba” without mentioning the hair-raising turn from Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet,” “Our Children”), who displays a hitherto unseen wild side as Samba’s “Latin lothario” buddy Wilson. Rahim is game, and funny, yet his appearance precipitates a hairpin swerve into broad, fantastical and weirdly melodramatic territory from which the film struggles to return. In fact, the tone becomes so wayward that “Samba” starts to play, in certain scenes, like “Dirty Pretty Things” as directed by Tyler Perry. Ultimately the main reason to get your wallet out for this is Sy, who serenely soars above the tonal chaos and dubiously simplistic depictions of complicated social dynamics. He proves beyond a doubt that he is a magnetic and genuinely commanding leading man.
“Samba” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday, July 24.
Ashley Clark is a freelance film journalist and film programmer from London, based in New York. He writes for The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Time Out, Village Voice, and VICE, among others; and he has appeared on the BBC’s Film show. He curated ‘Space is the Place: Afrofuturism on Film’ at BAMcinématek. He tweets as @_Ash_Clark