When the subject is immigration, outrage tends to outshout empathy. There’s a lot of fear but not a lot of humanity.
Which is why “Samba” is a film that could make a difference. The story about an undocumented immigrant in Paris, this is a film about one man’s life, rather than a discussion of immigration.
The film was written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the team that created “The Intouchables,” the most successful film in French history. And it features that film’s breakout star, Omar Sy, in a serious role that teams him with Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays in a lighter vein than most of her film roles that reach these shores.
Sy plays Samba, who has been living and working in Paris for a decade, sending money home to support his mother and family in Senegal. He’s worked his way from dishwasher to an offer to work under a chef, when immigration authorities grab him for lack of documentation.
He becomes one of the first cases for Alice (Gainsbourg), a business executive on sabbatical who is volunteering with an organization that tries to help people in immigration trouble. Her young supervisor warns her not to get too involved with individual cases, which is the first thing she does.
Drawn to Samba as a guy who just wants to contribute and create a life, she befriends him after he is released from detention with an OLFT (Order to Leave French Territory ). Which means he can stay, but he has to practice the underground life that being in the country illegally requires of him.
Samba’s case is binary: legal or illegal. Alice is a more complex case, a divorcee with a bad case of job burnout. Forced to compare her First World problems to those of Samba, she is buoyed by the spirit that keeps him upbeat and forward-looking. It’s not the most original formula — the immigrant who helps the native unlock something in herself — but Nakache and Toledano evade cliches and focus on real feelings.
Samba is a more introspective role than the glib smoothie Sy played in “Intouchables.” Yet Sy’s comic instincts peek out from time to time, particularly in his teaming with the more voluble and self-assured Tahar Rahim, as a fellow immigrant with secrets of his own. Sy has such a readable face — you can see him think — that he plays yin to Gainsbourg’s mysterious yang. He ultimately gets her to open up and confront the things that are giving her anger issues.
Satisfying in a way that too few American films remember how to be, “Samba” is the perfect counter-programming to the heavy-footed popcorn movies of summer. It’s a movie that stays with you, something not many films manage to do any more.