“Samba is undeniably cloying”
For those of you who have seen The Intouchables (2011), the sticky-sweet French dramedy about a wealthy quadriplegic and his vivacious black caretaker, Samba will seem quite familiar. That’s because the directors of both films, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, have strayed little from the formula that made Intouchables such a revered international gem. It’s got the same gloss of infinite optimism, an odd-couple pairing at its heart, and a persistent belief in the healing power of American R&B. The story’s changed, but the core principles haven’t.
This time around, the central unlikely duo consists of Samba Cissé (Omar Sy, who also starred in Intouchables), an undocumented Senegalese immigrant living in Paris, and Alice (a harried-looking Charlotte Gainsbourg), the immigration worker assigned to him when he winds up in a detention center. Alice, a former businesswoman who is working in an immigration office following what the French refer to as a “burn-out” – a nervous breakdown, essentially – is being guided through her new vocation by her more experienced, free-spirited colleague Manu (played by the French singer Izïa Higelin). Samba, meanwhile, must work a series of odd jobs and avoid detection by the authorities, as he has been officially booted from the country; his companion on many of these assignments is Wilson (Tahar Rahim), a streetwise immigrant of dubious Brazilian origin.
Let me address The Intouchables first. In that film, Omar Sy’s character was basically a modern twist on the concept of the Magical Negro, a fantastical figure who imparts wisdom and insight to the story’s (presumably white) protagonists. Sy waltzed around with an otherworldly swagger, bestowing his urban good cheer upon all of the buttoned-up squares he encountered. It worked in the jovial, streamlined vacuum of the story, but didn’t hold up to scrutiny; we learned next to nothing of his personal life, aside from a few vague references to a broken home and gang activity. Samba remedies the second problem, but not the first. In this movie, we spend more time with Sy on his own and get a better sense of his reality – including his fraught relationship with his uncle, Lamouna (Youngar Fall) – rendering him a more three-dimensional character. He is a human being, with cares and concerns and problems of his own, rather than merely a benevolent minstrel. I do find it odd, though, that the filmmakers chose to characterize Samba as shy and soft-spoken (perhaps this is the case in the novel on which the film is based). Omar Sy, the actor, possesses an irrepressible charisma, and while I’m all for casting against type, it’s much more difficult to cast against character. Sy shouldn’t play an introvert in the same way that Tom Cruise shouldn’t play a schlub – they simply can’t deny their nature. The first problem, though, is more troublesome. Nakache and Toledano still indulge in the saccharine idea that Sy is a sort of exotic remedy to the quotidian malaise of white, upper-class existence. Sure, it’s pleasant enough to watch him exert his considerable charm on the people he encounters, freeing them through humor and exuberance from the confines of their own reticence, but it all smacks of a simplistic exploitation of his otherness.
That notwithstanding, Nakache and Toledano do exercise a masterful eye for the wry, subtle comedy of everyday interaction. When we first witness a series of confused and frantic exchanges between the immigration workers and their clients, the result is light on its feet and hilarious. The directors know how to wring the humor from miscommunication, and they do so frequently and compassionately. The same, indeed, can be said for everything that occurs here. Samba has numerous flaws, but sincerity is not one of them. It’s obvious that Nakache and Toledano genuinely care for their subjects, and genuinely want audiences to enjoy themselves, and damned if they don’t succeed more than they don’t. When Samba and Wilson, his happy-go-lucky comrade, make the most of a window-washing gig by stripping for an office full of young women, it’s hard not to crack a smile, even though it feels implausible and a little manipulative. We certainly can’t fault the intentions behind such moments, nor can we deny, most of the time, their results.
Samba is undeniably cloying, and it tends to gloss over some of the more inconvenient consequences of its premise – we never sense that Samba is in real danger of deportation – but it’s also undeniably entertaining, and presents a very human and occasionally moving portrait of an immigrant’s plight in modern day Europe. This is filmmaking as candy: it’s sweet and tasty on the way down, but there’s not enough substance to make a meal of it.