After the box-office smash of The Intouchables, French writing/directing duo Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache are back with another conscientious, heartwarming film in Samba. Dropping us into the shoes of an illegal immigrant in France, Samba has plenty to say on the struggles and injustices its titular character must face, but manages to stay positive despite its heavy subject. By allowing its protagonist to be as functional a member of society as he is able, Samba isn’t as much a film about an immigrant, but about a character that happens to be one. Spending so much time exploring the other facets of Samba’s life does end up costing the film its sense of direction, but the upbeat nature of the film is just so endearing, and in the end is the thing that makes it so memorable.
Samba is a slice of the life of its titular character, played by The Intouchables‘ Omar Sy. An illegal immigrant working as a dishwasher, Samba gains the attention of the authorities and is put into a detention center. There he meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a newcomer immigration officer trying to reassemble her own life after a breaking down at her previous job. After Alice gets Samba released, he is given an order to leave France, forcing him to lay low as the two of them continue to help each other regain control of their lives.
While Samba’s lot in life can’t help but stir up some anger and frustration, don’t be fooled into thinking this is anything but a feel-good movie. Samba’s everyday struggles do serve to add conflict and keep the characters, and audience, on edge, but ultimately they serve as a backdrop to the more personal focus of the film. Those hoping for a more definitive examination of refugee hardships may be disappointed by Samba’s lighter touch, but, much like The Intouchables, Nakache and Toledano humanize their subject with upbeat comedy. This allows the audience to adore and empathize with Samba as a peer and not as a victim, an admirable approach which may prove critical for convincing less sympathetic viewers with more conservative views on migrants.
The directors’ hopes of getting the message out with a more inclusive film are further evidenced by the lack of any true antagonist. Some characters stand in Samba’s way, others actively seek him out, but this isn’t a film that points the finger, it reaches out to shake your hand and happily thank you for listening. Samba presents a world of bad luck and rotten situations, with everyone in it doing their damn best not to survive, but to live. Samba is a man well aware of the severity of his situation, and while it certainly takes its toll on him, his enthusiasm and sense of humor are never too far from the surface, always at the ready to disarm a tense situation and remind that every day is a gift, not a battle.
Despite being the warm little center of his world, Samba thankfully remains an authentic and fully rendered character. Jokes and swagger aside, he is neither carefree nor infallible. More often than not Samba lends perspective and acts as a voice of reason, but he is not without moments of weakness. One specific lapse in judgment weighs heavy on Samba’s mind, festering in the background until it winds up driving the film’s final act. With this loose thread, Samba attempts to upset the status quo the characters have settled in to and force a collision of the film’s disparate components. Unfortunately this only manages to further obfuscate Samba’s thesis, distracting from both the film’s socially conscious elements and Samba and Alice’s romance, two plotlines already struggling to reconcile. The film’s solution to bringing it all together is a neat idea, but it’s a last minute play not earned by the preceding script and too convenient to be believable.
Thankfully Samba’s inviting cast and optimistic tone more than make up for its structural shortcomings. Sy in particular keeps the charm flowing from start to finish, drawing comedy from a child-like innocence he uses to mask how much his situation weighs on him. The constant paranoia and fading sense of identity that come from having to lie and sneak around are heavy burdens to bare, but it’s here that makes Samba’s refusal to fall into despair so life-affirming.
If Samba represents joy concealing a sense of defeat, Alice is perhaps the inverse. Kept at bay by heavy medication, Gainsbourg’s Alice meekly floats about the set as she drip-feeds her renewed confidence throughout the film’s runtime. While Samba plays a huge part in helping her rebuild herself, Alice’s growth is her own achievement, already on the path to reassuring herself by taking such a proactive job to begin her new life. As is perhaps to be expected, Gainsbourg is superb in taking Alice through her various highs and lows. Running the gamut from her adorably timid introduction to hysterical fits of rage when pushed too far, Gainsbourg ensures Alice is so very much more than a simple love interest and instead an equal and balancing force for the film.
While it may sound as though Samba and Alice are opposing personalities, their core ideals and unwavering pursuit of happiness instead frame them as two sides of the same coin. Their most extreme differences are made increasingly irrelevant as they settle into each other and become whole. It may seem odd it’s this somewhat familiar love story is so prevalent in a film dealing in such heavy themes as immigration and equality, and it’s perfectly valid that many will feel these elements distract from what is an immensely important subject. But there is something undeniably beautiful in these two characters refusing to let all these external factors get in their way or change who they are. This isn’t a film about anger or blame, but about harmony. Samba distances itself from any firm political stance, announcing proudly that for all the world’s ignorance, injustices and complexities, it’s the lives of the people in it that matter above all.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10