Published Sep 05, 2014After Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's The Intouchables went on to become a phenomenon and one of the highest grossing French films of all time in 2011, far-right French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen was apparently aghast at the favourable depiction of the relationship between an immigrant and an older quadriplegic gentleman that was based on a true story. If that plot provoked an incredulous response, it's possible that Le Pen will positively hit the roof when he hears about the plot of Samba, Nakache and Toledano's new film.
Like The Intouchables, Samba is set in Paris and reunites the filmmakers with Omar Sy, the breakout star of that film (who recently appeared in X-Men: Days of Future Past). Sy plays Samba Ciesse, an undocumented immigrant from Senegal who has been in France for a decade scraping a living working mainly as a dishwasher under the auspices of his uncle and sending money back home to his family. His world begins to unravel after a document mix-up means his application for residence in France is declined; he's arrested and thrown into a jail-like detention centre with others who similarly occupy an endless, soul-destroying cycle of menial work.
Not surprisingly then, Samba latently functions as an indictment of the inequalities and the inequities of the French immigration system, and the film surfaces at a time when the anti-immigrant sentiment percolates thanks to right wing political swings that have been occurring in Europe.
Nakache and Toledano make their point using levity and sobering humour to underscore the failings in the immigration office scenes. It's within this context that the relationship shared between Samba and a burnt out former executive — the socially awkward novice immigration counsellor Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) — develops. Alice and Samba, aided by Sy and Gainsbourg's genuine portrayals, convincingly gain each other's trust, friendship and eventually love, despite Alice's weak attempts to keep her distance.
Samba is a strong film, equally adept at showing the inner disillusionment and detachment and the precariousness of being a persona non grata, all while widening the lens to highlight structural injustice. Alongside the comedic relief largely supplied by Omar's buddy Wilson (Tahar Rahim), there are sobering revelations and ruminations on race and class, the claiming and forsaking of identities and cultural backgrounds and how one small false move can have life-changing ramifications.