“Samba” – A difficult dance [MOVIE REVIEW]
“Samba” is a film by writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the duo responsible for the wonderful “Intouchables” of a few years back. It should have been better, but even so, is still good enough. Benefiting from a superb cast led by Omar Sy, the Cësar-winning actor of “The Intouchables,” and Charlotte Gainsbourg, one of France’s preeminent actresses (and daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin), supported brilliantly by Tahir Rahim and newcomer Youngar Fall, tackles its topical subject – illegal immigration – with grace and melancholy.
Samba, an illegal immigrant from Senegal, has been working menial jobs in Paris for the past 10 years with two important objectives in mind. He would like to obtain permanent, legal status with the goal of becoming a chef. He has taken every menial kitchen job that he can find and finally, when offered a permanent staff job, he feels he has enough to his credit to apply for legal residency. But instead, he runs into the juggernaut of the present day anti-immigration sentiment and is arrested and sent to a detention center. All detainees are given advocacy services and one of the group’s volunteers, Alice, is moved by his plight. Alice, a damaged soul, is trying to recover her own life and is drawn to the life force and unrealistic optimism of Samba. The organization’s efforts are thwarted, however, when Samba is given a deportation order; but it is an order, by quirk of the system, that releases him back on the streets. Taking the advice of his uncle, a legal resident with whom he lives, he tries harder to blend in, avoiding areas the police target in their hunt for illegals, and continues to seek the help of Alice and her co-workers.
Sticking strictly to the underground, his source of jobs has become even more limited, increasingly demeaning and often very dangerous. Generously helped by a Brazilian illegal, Wilson, he finds that together they can maneuver the black market job culture more safely than either could alone. And it is Wilson who helps Samba lighten up and embrace the irony of his name.
Based originally on the novel Samba pour la France by Delphine Coulin, who, along with her sister Muriel, wrote some of the storylines, Nakache and Toledano intended to present a relatively unvarnished look at the illegal immigrant problem in France. To a certain extent, they succeeded. The world of Samba is one of extraordinarily hard working men and women fighting for every menial job in order to support themselves and their families back home in their native lands. These are the men and women performing the low paying, non-union jobs that ordinary laborers refuse to contemplate – high rise window washing on makeshift scaffolding; garbage sorting; dishwashers paid under-the-table; security guards in high risk areas. They resemble the desperate gathering of Latino men at Home Depot hoping for any kind of a day job at less than minimum wage. But as France, like the United States, increasingly vilifies illegal immigrants as purveyors of crime, it won’t be long before the Le Pen party embraces Donald Trump’s mantra: “They’re bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”
The window opened onto this underground subculture is poignant and heartbreaking, a reminder of what we choose not to see and yet rely on for our own upwardly mobile standard of living. This is the major strength of Nakache and Toledano’s film, but it only underscores how weak the rest of their bloated scenario is. That Alice would be attracted to Samba only succeeds based on the depth of acting by Gainsbourg and Sy. Undeveloped on paper, it is Gainsbourg’s force as an actress that fills in what is missing on paper. Playing a high powered executive who had a nervous breakdown and is only now on the cusp of recovering, her physical attraction to the character of Samba, a man of considerable charm and limited education is highly unlikely. Had Nakache and Toledano placed more emphasis on Samba’s culinary ambitions, more credence would have been added to their budding romance and mutual support. It is thanks to the chemistry of Sy and Gainsbourg that some of the vast plot lacunae are filled in although more emphasis should have been put on the life lessons of true deprivation versus professional burnout.
There are additional story threads throughout, most of which lead only to script inflation. It was as if the writers were incapable of pruning stories and characters that added no value to the main theme. Time spent in the offices of the advocacy group is not time well spent and slows the action rather than propelling the story forward. Perhaps it was the opportunity to fatten the role of French rockstar Izïa Higelin that led to these scenes or perhaps it was an attempt to make her a Greek Chorus figure constantly warning Alice about getting too close to the clients, while ignoring her own advice and jumping into bed with Wilson. All of these subplots weaken the impact of the portrayal of the unfairly weighted existence of an illegal trying for a dignified life while sorting the garbage of society. Instead, they should have spent a bit more time developing the emotional pressure Samba was under in trying to support his family in Senegal, highlighted by a single poignant scene in which Samba is heard on a phone call with his mother where he is forced to lie about his predicament and when his next check will arrive. The scene itself is wonderful; its placement is misguided as it should have occurred earlier in order to underscore his anxiety.
But this is a film worth seeing. If there is any rancor to the tone of this review, it is based on what this film could have and should have been. That this film succeeds as much as it does, and it is a good film, just not an excellent film, is because of the extraordinary cast, actors who are able to communicate things that the script neglected to provide. Sy, one of France’s best exports, recently seen in such blockbusters as “Jurassic World” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and soon to be seen in the new John Wells film “Adam Jones” starring Bradley Cooper as well as Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s ”Inferno,” has a charisma and warmth that leaps off the screen. He has a smile that would light a city in a power outage. In a recent interview with Sy, the French born son of Senegalese immigrants, he talked of how he connected with his character. He met with illegals and was impressed with how bonded and supportive they were within their own community. He visited a trash factory where illegals were employed to do the back-breaking, humiliating work of sorting through garbage on an assembly line, making him all the more impressed with the workers whose inherent dignity and courage transcended the jobs they were doing. That, almost more than anything, informed his performance.
Gainsbourg’s personification of anxiety is a case study and drives a character that was given little else in terms of on-screen definition. Tahir Rahim as Wilson is a revelation. Known for his intense award-winning portrayal of a minor teen hoodlum sent to prison who returns to society as a crime kingpin in “A Prophet,” Rahim adds dimension and depth to “Samba” and an ironic lightness to the film given what his ultimate identity turns out to be. Rounding out this extraordinary cast and giving a realistic intensity of character beyond the reaches of the script is Youngar Fall playing Samba’s uncle. His very first role, he auditioned for the film on the day of his retirement after 30 years as a kitchen worker. Regardless of whether the role fit the man’s previous life, it is unusual to bring such natural wisdom to a character who acts as one of the moral underpinnings of the story. Nakache and Toledano were very lucky indeed.
Opening Friday July 24 at the Landmark Theatre at the Westside Pavilion. Friday night’s performance will feature a Q&A with Omar Sy.