The immigrant experience is an ongoing 400-year story in America, but in France it’s new enough to keep popping up as a subject for contemporary films.
Most of these films and the dilemmas they present would be of minor interest to Americans, but “Samba” is in a whole other category. It was a big hit in France last year, and it should play just as well for American audiences.
It’s the follow up film for directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who scored one of the biggest hits in European history with “Intouchables,” about an effervescent (or grating) personal assistant who brings joy (or irritation) to a wealthy paraplegic man. The success of that film was mystifying — who knew so many French people wanted to see a movie about an unbearable extrovert annoying a guy in a wheelchair?
But “Samba” is a much better film and makes a strong case for Omar Sy, who played the assistant in “Intouchables.” He has calmed down for this film and holds the screen with the thought and the assurance of a true movie star.
Samba (Sy) is an illegal immigrant, who has been working in a restaurant kitchen in Paris for 10 years, supporting himself while sending money back home to his family in Senegal. Something happens that brings him to the attention of the authorities, and the rest of the movie is about his legal struggle to remain in France. He is aided by some fairly powerless social workers, among them Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a businesswoman doing community work following a nervous breakdown.
The movie is full of interesting details about what it’s like to be undocumented in France.
For example, the police might issue an order for someone to leave France and go so far as to drop the person off at the airport. But it’s done with the understanding that the illegal alien will remain in the country and try to stay invisible. But staying invisible is very difficult. It means avoiding public places, while trying to get a job that pays cash and leaves no paper trail.
Sy is terrific in this. As Samba, he just seems like a really good guy — honest, hard-working, ethical and also emotionally strong. He’s someone you would want in your country. Over the course of the film, Samba strikes up a friendship with the temporary social worker, played by Gainsbourg, who is, as usual, by turns dreamy and distracted, and focused and disgruntled.
Gainsbourg is always going through a little more than she cares to tell the audience about, but the connection her character makes with Samba — real, complicated and not typical — is one of the movie’s highlights.