(France 2014)

I missed Samba when it played in Chicago last summer—for literally one week in a single theater—before it disappeared. Fortunately, it’s readily available to rent online. Samba was worth the wait even if it isn’t quite what I expected.

Samba (Omar Sy) is an undocumented alien from Senegal who has been living with his uncle and working illegally in Paris for a decade. He washes dishes at a swanky restaurant; the opening scene that leads us through the posh white crowd at the front of the house through the working class staff in the hectic kitchen to the three African dishwashers pushed far to the back in a tiny room says all we need to know before the story even starts. When authorities discover that Samba’s paperwork has expired, he’s held in a detention center for illegal immigrants, where he meets his case worker, Alice (Charlotte Gainesbourg), a sheepish, inept, and we later learn angry woman with a purse full of sleeping pills and a chip on her shoulder. A spark develops into something a little more as the two work on Samba’s case.

Generally speaking, French films tend be more cerebral than action-packed; Samba is no exception. While certainly not an emotional film, it still has a warmth that saves it from getting dull. Samba is an affable though imperfect guy working toward fulfilling his dream to be a chef—he’s just doing it in a country he illegally inhabits. He tracks down a fellow detainee’s woman (Liya Kebede) to relay a message and ends up in bed with her. He gets into a fight or two. He screws up day jobs—my favorite scenes are the ones in which he works with a Brazilian immigrant named Wilson (Tahar Rahim), in particular a reenactment of an old Coke commercial on a scaffold washing windows. Don’t be misled by the trailer: the relationship with Alice is more clumsy than hot and heavy or sexy. Through it all, Samba resorts to humor to get past the many rough spots he encounters.

Samba is a strange romantic comedy/adventure film with an underlying statement that the immigration process—chaotic, pedantic, inefficient, dehumanizing—is absurd. What struck me was that the story has nothing to do with the States, yet its point applies all the same to the American system. Samba also shows that immigration issues are not confined to any one country. The story itself is pretty ordinary, but Sy and Rahim’s performances elevate it to something interesting. 

(Home via iTunes) B-

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