After the runaway success of “The Intouchables,” French writing-directing duo Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache were positioned to tackle nearly any project they pleased, especially if comedic muse Omar Sy agreed to be involved. It speaks volumes about the trio’s priorities that they decided to challenge themselves and their built-in mainstream audience with “Samba,” a more-serious-than-not cross-cultural romance starring Sy as a Senegalese dishwasher with feelings for the immigration caseworker (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who could be his last chance at staying in Paris. Using the team’s slick populist sensibility for good, “Samba” offers earnest progressive messaging in a broadly appealing package.
Given the country’s widespread concern with immigration and integration (not just resistance to the arrival of outsiders, but objections to how they adapt to the Gallic way of life), xenophobia has been the pervasive subtext of French cinema for at least the past decade — if not the text itself, as in this year’s runaway B.O. phenom, “Serial (Bad) Weddings,” in which a father freaks out when all four of his daughters marry foreigners. Whereas that pic exploited certain stereotypes, “Samba” aims to address the underlying racism. Loosely adapted from Delphine Coulin’s novel “Samba pour la France,” Toledano and Nakache’s unabashedly sentimental script invites audiences to sympathize with the sort of character they see everyday, but seldom stop to interact with — just as “Spanglish” was supposed to do in the States, though “Samba” achieves far more satisfying results.
This was also one of the helmers’ goals with “The Intouchables,” though some (including Variety) took issue with its racial politics. By contrast, no one would mistake Samba for a buffoon: He’s a strong, complex personality working in proximity to his dream — to become a chef — via an off-the-books job in a Paris restaurant. He’s resourceful enough to have avoided the authorities for nearly 10 years, but now that he’s been busted, his entire existence seems to be in jeopardy.
Enter Alice (Gainsbourg, cast wildly against type), a mousy white woman assigned to his case. Alice is new to the job and not yet jaded enough to ignore the human being sitting across the table. Against the advice of her more thick-skinned co-worker, Manu (Izia Igelin), she starts to care about Samba, taking his case personally — so personally that she steals the baby photo from his file and displays it on her nightstand at home.
“Samba” divides its time between these two characters, flirting with the possibility of romance, while recognizing that such things are typically trickier than the movies make them out to be. Samba’s situation is complicated by a broken promise to a friend (Issaka Sawadogo) he met in lockup, when his selfless attempt to track down the guy’s lost g.f. leads to a shameful one-night stand. Alice has her own barrel of issues. “When I let myself go, it’s a massacre,” she jokes — a wink to the less inhibited character she played in “Nymphomaniac.” Alice is quite the opposite: Pent up and burned out from 15 years as a white-collar workaholic, she has problems opening up, and the interracial kiss, when it comes, is played for tenderness rather than provocation.
Clearly, the most obvious solution to their problems would be for the two characters to couple up and get married, thereby giving Samba legal grounds to stay in France, but the pic isn’t so predictable. Toledano and Nakache seem determined to avoid such cliches, even as they give in to other crowdpleasing gimmicks (namely, that U.S. studio laffer tendency to tag dramatic scenes with a few seconds of the actors being goofy, just to go out on a comic beat). But many of their choices go against the norm, from their ongoing collaboration with Ludovico Einaudi — whose exceptional Avro Part-like rolling-piano compositions provide rich opportunity for the emotions to sink in — to the unlikely casting of the charismatic Tahar Rahim in a rare comedic role, playing an Algerian lothario pretending to be Brazilian, since it gets more mileage with the ladies.
For those who follow the festival circuit closely, European immigration concerns won’t seem such a novel subject. Stories not so different from “Samba” pop up fairly regularly in liberal-minded social-issue cinema, though they seldom break out beyond the arthouse and are typically told in gritty, pseudo-documentary style. Toledano and Nakache have made the relatively radical decision to treat such a subject as the foundation for a highly polished, widely appealing big-budget French movie. Running a full reel longer than needed, the film’s balance of romance, humor and pathos starts to slip in the final stretch, which hinges on a mistaken-identity device that may as well have been pilfered from a Hollywood silent movie, though the emotional notes ring true.
If nothing else, the pic cements Sy’s position as one of France’s most magnetic screen personalities, even more compelling to watch in serious scenes than in the obligatory comedic bits (which might score with local auds, but seem silly and forced to foreign eyes). Native speakers can also appreciate Sy’s mastery of a Senegalese accent, adopted for the role, which adds a layer of vulnerability as the character struggles to express himself in French. While the film’s international travel potential is ultimately more limited than that of “The Intouchables,” there’s no question it will be a game-changer at home.