French directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have been working side by side since the mid 2000s, but stormed into popularity with their 2011 hit “The Intouchables.” Breaking local box-office records with a story about a quadriplegic aristocrat and his impoverished caretaker, it appears that stories about odd couples is something of a specialty for these two. Their latest film, “Samba,” has its grand world premiere at TIFF this year, and continues this trend of unlikely pairings, as it traces the relationship between a migrant from Senegal and the charity worker assisting in his residency case. It’s a love story set in a contemporary world brimming with immigration issues, but it manages to be neither political drama, nor bubbly romance, somehow getting away with being labeled as a comedy. Of course, it will only get away in some cases, since it has us wondering what it’s doing in the Gala section of TIFF in the first place.
Samba (Omar Sy) has been in France for 10 years, mostly working as a dishwasher and trying to climb up the ladder to food preparer. After checking up on his residency status to see if he has become eligible to apply, he is told that his case has been denied, gets arrested and thrown into a detention center for illegal immigrants. Enter Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is doing part-time work with immigrants in order to work off a recent burnout episode she had at her regular job. Nervous, disheveled and completely out of her element, Alice scruffles her way into the detention center and gets Samba as her very first case. Against her more experienced colleague’s advice, she gives him her phone number, thus ensuring that they will inevitably cross paths again.
After some time in the detention center, Samba is released on an OLFT, which basically means he is illegally residing in France and should go back home, but no one will actually force him to leave unless he does something to provoke the authorities. With the help of his uncle, he begins to move from one common job to another, befriending Brazilian fellow migrant Wilson (Tahar Rahim) along the way, more often than not working alongside him. On the other side of the poverty line, Alice can’t seem to get Samba out of her head and even uses a picture she found in his file as therapy to calm her nerves. Samba calls Alice whenever he finds himself in a bind, and she in turn designs to speak with him every time she sees him in the immigration offices checking up on his file. Meandering forward, “Samba” wilts into a predictable love story, forcefully engineered along the way to direct the audience into laughter and sorrow, all the while making one of the most highly sensitive, political hot-topics in Europe a startlingly light affair.
It may not have been the intention of Nakache and Toledano to use immigration issues as a springboard for zingers and borderline slapstick humor, but this is precisely what occurs in “Samba.” It saves face, slightly, by making its protagonist a jokester prone to looking at the positive side of life, but that doesn’t explain the montage of immigrants trying to express their issues to bamboozled social workers, turning language barriers into comic relief and distressed individuals into caricatures stuck in an apparently jocular bureaucratic system. We won’t pretend like the humor didn’t suck us in either. One moment in particular sees a translator sum up Alice’s outburst into one, hilarious, and perfectly delivered line of dialogue, but it’s the kind of laughter that chokes up the throat, with the uneasy feeling of watching a serious issue turned into a joke. If the film only had this one glaring stain, it may have gotten at least one thumb up from us, but the predictable way the story unfolds and the over-sweetened plot devices drag the picture down to a level of mediocrity unbefitting one of the greatest film festival stages.
Any worth and value that the film holds is resolutely shouldered by the two stars. Sy, in particular, turns up the charm tenfold and makes Samba into an instantly likeable guy. When he dances and starts toying around with props in a deserted mall as a way to fight boredom, you can’t help but smile, even though the engineered nature of the scene gnaws at the back of your mind. When he gets a window-washing job with Wilson, his fear of heights is endearing despite the fabricated reasons the script wrote his character that way. And while this isn’t much of a stretch for Gainsbourg, she makes Alice into a sympathetic personality with her comic anxiousness. It’s clear that she has fun with the role, as one moment sees her joking that sex is her way to deal with excess, which is surely a wink to her recent role in Lars Von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac.” Tahar Rahim continues to impress and show why he’s become a star in his own right, but it’s a shame that the script renders the character into a comedic trope only to forget about him towards the end.
Admirers of the directing duo’s hit “The Intouchables” may yet fall in love with “Samba.” For us, however, its sweetly coated, cookie-cutter handling of relationships and migration is too thick to bear. What’s more, the conclusion is so drawn-out that it prolongs the film and makes two-hours feel twice as long. Interestingly enough, the opening sequence is an impressive single shot that takes us from a high-class party into the dishwashing unit where we first meet Samba. Sadly, the film misses the chance to deal with class disparity in the depth the opening implies it will and after the first few minutes, despite the efforts of an inspired cast, “Samba” becomes a dance we regret ever being dragged to. [C-]