Immigration Situation Revelation
Following the dismal events of the last week, a trip to the cinema to see something genuinely diverting and perhaps even a bit uplifting definitely seemed like a good idea, but somehow none of the industrially-tinged blockbusters occupying the multiplexes felt like they would do the trick. Full-on escapism would have felt oddly inappropriate too. In the end, and prompted mainly by a rather engaging trailer, I ended up going to see Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's Samba, a film about the life of an illegal immigrant living in modern-day Paris. An odd choice, perhaps? Well, maybe.
Our main character is Samba Cisse (Omar Sy), a Senegalese man who has been living in France for the last ten years, and who as the film opens has just applied for a residence permit. All that results is a very swift trip to a facility for holding illegal immigrants and an appointment in front of a judge. It also leads to a meeting with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a businesswoman taking a sabbatical after a fairly severe bout of executive stress, who is helping people in Samba's position. Despite the strict instructions of her colleague Manu (Izia Hegelin) not to get too involved with their clients, Alice finds herself providing Samba with both sleeping pills and her phone number.
The somewhat byzantine workings of the French immigration system result in Samba being released, under strict instructions to leave French territory, but with no actual requirement to do so. He opts to stay in Paris and somehow try to scrape a living without drawing the attention of the authorities, which is a little tricky given he doesn't have an actual work permit. Nevertheless, Samba and his best friend Wilson (Tamar Rahim) embark on a string of peculiar jobs, even as the two of them get to know Alice and Manu rather better. But with the odds so heavily stacked against them, is there any real hope of long-term happiness?
If you turn up to see Samba, you will find many things awaiting you, but I would not be discharging my responsibilities if I left you with the impression that political impartiality was one of them. This is not a film attempting to give a balanced view of the immigration debate. The directors set out their stall in a very assured opening shot, in which the camera moves in a single take from a wedding reception in full swing – all careless affluence, glamour, self-indulgence and delight – into the depths of the kitchens of the hotel in which it is being held, finally settling on Samba, doing the hot, exhausting, filthy job of a kitchen porter. (Perhaps my own experiences working in the restaurant trade have left me a little biased.) Illegal migrant workers, the film suggests, are largely invisible – largely because they have to work very hard to be so – but they are every bit as human as the rest of us, with the same capacity for hope, joy, guilt and despair.
What stops Samba from being a strident, one-note piece of agitprop is that it doesn't just bang on and on about the unfairness of the lot of immigrants. The thing that makes it, I think, a very fine film indeed, is that it does attempt to capture the totality of the experience of all the characters involved – there are some tough scenes, and perhaps even heartbreaking moments, but also ones of delight and camaraderie, and scenes both comic and touching. The central strand of the plot is the slowly-developing relationship between Samba and Alice, but this is far from the sole focus of the film, which sometimes feels almost soap-opera like in its profusion of storylines and characters. Not all of the elements of the narrative feel fully developed, but there is at least an attempt to present the numerous characters – not just the four leads, but also Samba's uncle, and various other characters from the immigration support agency – fairly and in depth. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just people trying to find their own way to happiness.
The downside to the freewheeling, episodic structure is that the conclusion of the film perhaps feels a little contrived, but by this point – if you're anything like me – you will feel so invested in the characters that you'll be more than willing to cut the film some slack on this point. This is surely largely due to the performances of the leads: Sy and Gainsbourg are both utterly convincing and highly engaging – and, in Sy's case, hugely charismatic as well. It's no surprise to me that Sy has already started appearing in American movies (nor much of a surprise that these are fairly undemanding popcorn movies like Days of Future Past and Jurassic World).
Perhaps Samba does work a bit too hard to look on the bright side, but it's still a film which is filled to the brim with warmth and compassion and the love of living, things which are often either wholly absent from commercial Anglophone cinema, or at least feel counterfeit. It's by no means perfect, but it gets all the important things right, and watching it is a memorable and – yes – uplifting experience. We read a lot of fairly negative things about France in the British press these days, but any country capable of making a film like this one has got at least something going for it.