Samba

April 4, 2015
Omar Sy in 'Samba' (2014)
Omar Sy in 'Samba' (2014)

Four years ago, French filmmakers, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano had such a huge hit with The Intouchables, it left one wondering what they could possibly do for an encore. The answer is Samba, another humanistic comedy-drama starring Omar Sy, the giant-sized wheelchair-pusher from the previous movie. The paradigm may be slightly different but the humanistic tone is just as distinctive. Nakache and Toledano have the rare ability to be able to address social issues without conspicuous moralising. As directors they have a remarkably sure touch.

Samba is the story of an illegal immigrant from Senegal who has been living with his uncle in Paris for the past ten years. He works off-the-books as a dishwasher and sends money home, but dreams of being a chef. These ambitions come unstuck when he is arrested and sent to an internment centre.

Samba is interviewed by two case workers, the self-assured Manu (Izia Higelin) and the timid Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Although she is warned not to get personally involved, Alice is new to the job, and takes an interest in Samba. The stop-start relationship that ensues is the thread that runs through the film, as we watch two accident-prone characters get closer to each other by degrees. One tries not to think too much about Gainsbourg’s last screen incarnation in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014). Is there a sexual demon lurking beneath that neurotic exterior?

Although Samba gets released from detention he is still under threat of deportation. This makes his working life even more precarious, as he drifts from one casual job to another. Along the way he picks up a buddy named Wilson (Tahar Rahim), who claims to be Brazilian, as it works better with the girls. His real name, however, is Walid, and he hails from Algeria.

The plot becomes slightly episodic, as Samba works in security, construction and even window-cleaning. He promises to trace a girl for a fellow inmate at the detention centre and puts himself in a compromising position. This allows opportunities for drama and comedy, while highlighting the pitfalls of the immigrant’s life. The counselling centre where Alice works is another source of black comedy, as the case workers try to deal with intractable problems and languages. At times it seems a bit too friendly to be believed, although everything remains within the bounds of plausibility.

Samba turns to Alice in a crisis, only to find that she has her own problems. She has become a case worker because her previous job as a high-powered executive came to a halt when she attacked another staff member in a fit of anger. A refugee from the corporate world she is as much a displaced person as Samba. He leads a fraught existence, trying to remain one step ahead of the law. She struggles to restore her shattered nerves and sleep at night.

The message, one suspects, is that we are all vulnerable human beings, regardless of race, creed, colour or socio-economic status. This may sound like the worst wet liberal cliché but Nakache and Toledano give themselves two hours to bring the characters alive and engage our sympathies. The sentimentality of the tale is overridden by the strength of the story-telling.

The bigger picture concerns the hypocrisy of a society that depends on cheap immigrant labour to do all the dirty, low-paid jobs, while demonising the same workers as a threat to the French economy. This is commonplace in many countries, although it is a serious issue in France where Marine Le Pen’s Front National has become a major political force. This is the context in which Samba must be judged. Nakache and Toledano take a realist approach to a subject Aki Kaurismaki treated as a modern fairy tale in Le Havre (2011). In both cases the filmmakers have tried to break down the walls of xenophobia in their portrayal of illegal immigrants and refugees.

It hardly needs emphasising that Samba is a film of more than passing relevance to Australia, now that our treatment of asylum seekers has become so contentious. The success of the government’s detention policy requires that none of those people languishing on Nauru or Manus Island be given a human face. As mere statistics, without a voice or a history, they can be fitted into any convenient political narrative. If these people were allowed to tell their stories Australians might be less likely to support the hard-line policies that have proved popular with the electorate.

As shown by Tony Abbott’s recent attack on the Human Rights Commissioner, there is an absolute determination that asylum seekers remain voiceless and faceless. And this is the value of a film such as Samba which shows the illegal immigrant as someone with similar values and aspirations as any legitimate citizen. It is more effective for such stories be told through the medium of popular entertainment rather than a political platform. When politicians go out of their way to create a climate of fear, it issues a challenge for filmmakers to take the public mind in a different direction.

Samba
Directed by Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano
Written by Delphine & Muriel Coulin, Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano
Starring Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Youngar Fall, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo
France, rated M, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th April, 2015.