As the plight of illegal immigrants remains a hot-button issue in American and international politics, many current films have looked at this struggle in unique, singular ways. Titles like Sin Nombre, A Better Life and Dirty Pretty Things have dramatized a collection of sad, squalid tales that need to be told in today’s inflamed political arena. However, few of them boast much in the way of laugh-out-loud comedy.
Samba, the new film from The Intouchables directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, uses the appeal of its lead star, Omar Sy, to generate crowd-pleasing moments in what is likely the cheeriest movie ever made about the immigrant’s plight. Despite its light touch, the levity works.
Sy plays Samba Cissé, a man from Senegal who has worked a lot of low-paying jobs after arriving in France a decade earlier. He sends much of his measly paycheck to his family back home. However, when a job application is refused, the dishwasher is on high alert and on the cusp of deportation. A shy, reclusive immigration worker, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), promises that she will help the hard-working migrant. This does not just come from her dignity at work, but her obvious crush on the handsome, quick-witted Samba. A co-worker warns Alice to keep a safe distance from the people she is helping, but the reclusive woman sees something in him she cannot resist.
The lead character is named after a throbbing Brazilian dance, an appropriate touch given the protagonist’s perpetual movement. Those who saw The Intouchables probably remember an early scene from that comedy, where Sy’s Driss talks his way into a job as a caregiver using an infusive wit and refreshing honesty. That character’s proclivity for charming his way out of trouble, a natural extension of Sy’s comedy routine that has been very successful overseas, means that the actor blends into the role of Samba naturally. It is hard to imagine Nakache and Toledano wrote the role with another actor in mind.
What bolsters Sy’s performance in Samba is not just his affable good humor, but also his capacity for heartbreaking dramatic moments. Despite his suave personality, the characters has to be alert to the possibility of authorities sniffing him out. As a result, the high-octane comedy talents of the star are more reserved here, to fit his character’s need for privacy and blending in. The comedy moments do not feel false and forced against the dark subject matter, but like moments of lightly sprinkled relief.
As introspective performances go, Samba also features a very different turn from actor Charlotte Gainsbourg. Best known for being a victim of abuse and anguish in many of Lars Von Trier’s recent harrowing dramas – among them, the provocative Antichrist and Nymphomaniac – it is a relief to see Gainsbourg crack a smile and show some humanity. Alice is socially awkward and somewhat clumsy around sentences – and not just the ones she speaks in a foreign tongue to the other migrants – and Gainsbourg eases into the role very well. “I don’t say yes to excess,” she tells Samba, serving as a foil to the colorful protagonist with a name inspired by a dance.
Together, Sy and Gainsbourg are an unlikely duo – in the United States, it would be like pairing Will Smith and Joan Allen together – and their relationship is a bit lopsided. The uneven friendship comes out in what screenwriting guru Robert McKee termed the “California scene,” when two characters who don’t know each other sit down and open up their most guarded secrets. (These kinds of confessions only happen in California, McKee states.) Much of Alice’s backstory is delegated to a long scene where she sits with Samba in a late-night café, going over elements of her social difficulty, including some anger management issues that left her out of a job. It is a clunky bit of character exposition that the writers should have introduced in a more dynamic way.
Despite Samba’s lighthearted tone, Nakache and Toledano also find some intriguing angles to view the struggles of an immigrant. The film opens with a long take beginning at a wedding party, filled with dancers dressed as Gatsby-esque flapper girls, before gliding the camera off to the kitchen where white, prim-dressed staff snack on some of the desserts. The camera then follows another worker from this station far back to a sink where Samba, somewhat robotically, washes the dishes. This dichotomy between the rich and poor also comes out in other scenes: one striking symbol is a holding center for migrants located just outside of an airport tarmac. Some people are immobile to their circumstances, while others can just fly away.
Even with a sober subject, the directors use comedy to offer the audience a reprieve from Samba’s tough situation. (Meanwhile, the language barrier between the immigration lawyers and the people they tend to is a difficult reality, but there are some amusing laughs from these misinterpretations.) In one scene, Samba gets picked to be nighttime mall security, where quells his boredom by playing golf and soccer with the rambunctious energy of a grade-schooler.
Later in Samba, the title character and Brazilian migrant pal Wilson (The Past’s Tahar Rahim) get a job cleaning windows at a high-rise office. Stuck on the scaffolding, a petrified Samba tries his best to not look down 40 storeys, while Wilson engages the female workers on the other side with a striptease. When Wilson tells him just to enjoy the view and not worry about the ground below, it is an apt line of dialogue. Even as we enjoy these sunnier moments, there is always the threat of these characters losing the jobs. Each scene of boisterous humor comes with a touch of dry suspense.
Another tough reality is about Samba‘s circumstance: films about immigration are often too dour and neorealist to grab the financial consideration of a major studio. That said, Nakache and Toledano’s previous comedy-drama netted more than $440 million worldwide. With Sy’s charm, appeal and velvety voice, and a screenplay that creates comedy and relief from the strain of the immigrant struggle, Samba could be on the road to major box office internationally. And the film definitely deserves it.