Movie Review – Samba

This foreign language comedy about the interracial romance between a French woman and an African immigrant explores issues around race, colour and class. If that doesn’t grab you, a Brazilian man pays homage to the 1998 Diet Coke ad by doing a film-stealing window-washing strip dance.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Review by Zane Alexander

This French rom-com puts a human face on the plight of immigrants, as Samba (Omar Sy), a migrant from Senegal, winds up in a detention centre, where he is assisted by immigration officer Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and a romantic connection develops between them.

Co-written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, this is their second collaboration with Sy after 2011’s hugely successful The Intouchables, for which he won the Cesar Award, or the French Oscar, for Best Actor. He shines again here, with the screen presence of a lovable dog, that even when it misbehaves (and he does), you just want to give him a big, forgiving cuddle.

Gainsbourg, from director Lars von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” (Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac), finally gets a chance to pull herself out of it. Recovering from a breakdown at work after she went loco on a co-worker (the details of which are shatteringly funny) she is taking time out to assist at the immigration help centre. Her journey back to wholeness through her interactions with Samba is full of quiet humour, and her shy, fragile and naïve character is nicely offset by Samba’s overfriendliness.

Though it might seem like a heavy issue around which to set a romance, it’s been done before, with 1990’s Greencard coming to mind, starring Gérard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell. Certainly a contentious political issue in our country, it was eye-opening to see if other cultures deal with it differently. It seems they do not. Like our Liberal policies, rejection or assimilation is the order of the day, with Samba needing to appear as though he lives and works there, and the simple addition of a briefcase to convey his entitled status and purpose is an interesting observation about class systems and how we perceive people. In addition, the well-crafted opening scene perfectly illustrates the tiers of society; the camera follows a wedding with a tracking shot beginning on the well-dressed partygoers dancing and feasting, served by well-dressed waiters, into the kitchen past the chefs and kitchen hands, and finally introducing our main character at the lowest of the low… washing dishes.

Unfortunately most of what made the film fail to fire for me was the director’s struggle to find the right tone; it vacillates back and forth between light-hearted rom-com, dramedy, outright drama, and serious political commentary. It was also generally predictable throughout, with a main subplot involving Samba’s search for a fellow inmate’s girlfriend on the outside, which obviously would circle back on itself toward the end.

There are some wonderful scenes though, particularly in the Help Centre as the language barrier provides frustration on both sides. For me, however, the highlight is a scene where Samba’s Brazilian workmate Walid (Tahar Rahim) convinces the height-fearing Samba to window wash the side of a tall building with him, and while balanced precariously on the platform, Walid decides to hilariously re-enact the famous Diet Coke ad for an office full of women, as Samba clutches on for dear life.  For a film full of metaphor, this is a nice one about the different ways of coping with being on the outside looking in.

Ultimately, its strength lies in its depiction that choices around life and relationships are not just black and white; and while it’s a worthwhile exploration of the issues that boat people face, in the end, it didn’t rock my boat. Three and a half stars.

Samba is in Australian cinemas as of Thursday April 2nd

Images courtesy of  Transmission Films

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