Wonderful Performances Can’t Elevate ‘Samba’ From its Muddled Personality

GameStop, Inc.

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Here in America we like to think of Europe, especially France, as some kind of socialist utopia, or dystopia depending your own stance on the political spectrum. While in terms of healthcare and the social safety net, European nations are much more progressive than America. However, one area that France and other European countries aren’t as lenient is immigration. Samba, the latest film by the directing duo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, aims to blend drama and comedy in the story of one Senegalese immigrant trying to survive in Paris. But the film can only coast by on the charismatic performance by Omar Sy before the uneven mixture of laughs and tears become combustible and blow up in everyone’s face.

Having lived in France for the past ten years, Samba (Sy) has been living with his uncle Lamouna (Youngar Fall), who has legal immigration status. Though Samba has applied for legal residency, his application is quickly denied. Things take a turn for the worse when Samba is arrested for his illegal status. He loses his job and placed in a jail for other undesired immigrants. That’s where Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Manu (Izïa Higelin), a pair of social workers focused on helping immigrants, come into the picture. After losing a hearing to obtain legal status, Samba is released with jail with an order to leave France. Now Samba must live in fear of being arrested and deported, avoiding subway stations late at night and dressing in a suit to hopefully blend in. Over the course of working various odd jobs, Samba strikes up a friendship with Wilson (Tahar Rahim), a fellow immigrant who isn’t always forthright about his country of origin. The constant fear and uncertainty hangs like a dark storm cloud over Samba as he tries to survive in a nation indifferent to his needs.

Samba has its heart in the right place, hoping to explore the struggles of an immigrant, but it can’t ever put all the pieces together. The relationship between Alice and Samba is presented in such an obvious manner that you’re simply biding the time until the inevitable. From the moment they meet, you know where it’s going. But where that would be completely unbearable in most movies, the wonderful performances by Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg extend enough a goodwill that the film can carry on until the film’s ridiculous and wholly unsatisfying conclusion. It’s wonderful to see Gainsbourg free from the physical and emotional degradation of a Lars Von Trier film, and she brings a subtle, nervous grace to Alice. Meanwhile, Sy gives a soulful performance that serves as a reminder just how criminally wasted he is in American blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Jurassic World.

In adapting Delphine Coulin’s novel, writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano can’t ever find that right mix between its comedic and dramatic elements. This is especially apparent at the film’s finale when it tries to have it both ways – wistfully alternating between a tragic conclusion and a happy ending. Individual moments of comedy and drama do work effectively, but after a while Samba is incapable of finding the right flow. It’s that uneven personality that drowns out nice cinematic flourishes, like the film’s opening shot that establishes a contrast between classes, of rich and poor, of native and immigrants, but fails to bring these issues much further than the surface.

Samba isn’t a bad movie nor is it a very good one. With some subtle humor and charming performances by Omar Sy and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Samba has a few things going for it. But its conflicted tone and incredibly poor ending leaves the audience departing the theater thematically unsatisfied. This is a film that’s unsure if it wants to be a light comedy, a romance, or a heartbreaking drama about an immigrant’s struggle. Sadly, Samba wants to be all those things. It just doesn’t know how to pull it off.

Samba opens July 24th in select theaters. For more information go here.

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