Probably unlike most social dramedies about the plight of the illegal migrant worker in France, Samba opens with a wedding. And boy, what a wedding! A troupe of professional dancers in flapper costumes prance around as the newly-wed couple cut the first sliver from an enormous tiered cake. Immediately afterwards, the cake is whisked away into the bowels of the hospitality hierarchy, whose first stop is the prepping table, where a dozen French chefs adorn dozens of plates with fresh raspberries. But we can’t stop here. Onwards down the pecking order because where we need to go is at the very bottom, where resides Samba Cissé (Omar Sy), the dish washer, mechanically wiping each soiled plate with his hand before putting it through the belt.
I’m predisposed towards Sy, who stole my heart (and that of the rest of the French film industry) in the scene at the opera in the critically-acclaimed 2011 film The Intouchables, also co-directed by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano.
In the earlier film, Sy played a redeemed petty thug with the heart of gold. Here he plays an illegal immigrant with the heart of gold. Offsetting Samba’s undeniable goodness is Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who cuts a particularly pathetic figure which, when it is finally addressed, only leaves the audience more confused. Alice is a volunteer immigration officer (is that a thing?), her charity work forming part of her psychiatric treatment following a violent nervous breakdown.
Turns out Alice isn’t the little mouse she appears to be, but a high-powered businesswoman (at least, that’s what you’re supposed to believe when she finally returns to work, seated at the head of a table full of white guys in fancy suits). But until those very last moments, in no way does Alice inspire particular confidence in her ability to do just about anything. The only way in which she is aggressive is when she’s upset–which involves a lot of shrieking and yelling and pulling a chunk of hair out of a man’s head. Otherwise, she’s meek and scatterbrained–as she puts it, she doesn’t sleep well, especially at night. Later, she tells Samba that his uncle has given her macaroons to pass along to him while he’s being held by the immigration office. Where are the macaroons? Samba wants to know. Oh, she’s eaten them. That’s actually a rather tender moment, as Samba, following her to his court hearing, just smiles at this strange woman. Alice is “different”–that much is reiterated time and time again, though it doesn’t necessarily explain why Samba ultimately falls for her.
Wrapped around this romance is an almost documentary portrayal of the life of an illegal migrant worker in today’s Paris. Samba and his ersatz Brazilian sidekick Wilson (Tahar Rahim) get work (or not) from day-to-day as window cleaners, construction workers, or nighttime security guards, at one point barely escaping a police raid by clambering across the rooftops of Paris. There’s another, even more sinister, subplot, involving a wronged pal whose revenge confusingly turns out to be the climax of the film. There’s a Hitchcockian turn of events (mistaken identities and all that) and, like the start of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Samba’s life is unalterably changed with the simple act of exchanging jackets with someone. The ending is hopeful and at the same time morally unsatisfying. Fortunately, the pleasure of watching Sy more than makes up for the film’s foibles.