Charlotte Gainsbourg and Omar Sy in Samba (Broad Green Pictures)

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Omar Sy in Samba (Broad Green Pictures)

Written and Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, based on the novel Samba pour la France by Delphine Coulin
Produced by Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun
Released by Broad Green Pictures
French with Arabic and Serbian dialogue with English subtitles
France. 119 min. Rated R
With Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, and Youngar Fall

Fleeing war, famine, and poverty in the world’s most violent places, immigrants descend on Europe every day. As host countries fret and grumble, the new arrivals struggle to stay, to work, to fit in. Feature films and news reports have focused on the immigrant plight for years now. Their style is usually gritty and tough. Now along comes Samba to bring warmth, humor, and even romance to a familiar tale. The film’s old-fashioned sympathy for its rich, complex characters goes a long way to help the artistic risk pay off.

Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano teamed up with actor Omar Sy in 2011’s The Intouchables, France’s second-biggest international-grossing hit. Sy is back as Samba, an African would-be chef dodging Paris immigration control, quarreling with his overbearing uncle, and uneasily keeping an eye out for a friend-turned-vengeful foe. A dignified, decent sort, Samba is also bit of a jokester, who doesn’t always know when it’s time to turn off the jokes and whose decisions sometimes lead to big trouble. He crosses paths with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an executive on probation filling her empty days with do-gooder deeds at an immigrant aid center. A colleague warns Alice to keep professional distance from Samba. We’ll see how that goes.

Samba gently injects social realism into its exploration of these two individuals’ interlocking fates. Although played for laughs, the scenes where desperate immigrants plead for aid from a hapless volunteer staff make the point that good intentions fall short of immense need. Alice’s Paris—white Paris—looks stately and noble, shot from a distance; Samba’s black Paris is filmed intimately in all its crowded, lively shabbiness. Like the characters at the movie’s center, the different worlds come together in fraught and sometimes surprisingly tender, easygoing ways.

Bolts of physical comedy add zip to the film. In a burst of pent-up energy, Samba races after an airplane at Charles de Gaulle Airport on his release from a short stint in jail, coaxing a smile from his all-business prison guard. A comic chase scene on a Paris rooftop evokes jittery laughs worthy of Laurel and Hardy.

Both leads turn in strong performances. Sy is an open, dynamic, and watchful presence, and Gainsbourg acts out Alice’s anxieties with an appealing ditziness. She convincingly plays a semi-ordinary working person and strikes a touching balance of nerves and vulnerability. Secondary characters with distinct personalities and quirks round out an appealing cast.

Like many movies today, Samba runs at least 20 minutes too long. Its plot gets a little too frantic and busy at the end. The movie gets past these flaws by handling a tough subject with humanizing detail, a generous heart, and a light touch that never draws too much attention to the novelty of its approach. The character Samba doesn’t dance, but Samba does.