Stevie Wonders’ 1972 song “To Know You is To Love You” serves as a proverbial rainbow overarching the new Omar Sy film “Samba”. The creative writing and directing team of “Intouchable” fame, Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano, have done for undocumented workers what they did for quadriplegics in their earlier French film. Both groups are masterfully de-labelled, made infinitely more human,and therefore,more lovable. Old-school song lyrics enhance this film’s take on illegal immigration in France.”To know you is to love you/But to know me is not the way you see/Baby,to know you is to love you…is to see you being free as the wind.”
Samba,who lives with his card-holding uncle,is free to work many “under-the-table-jobs”:dish and high-window washer,asphalt spreader,trash sorter and security guard.But after ten years and an advancement to prep chef,Samba’s illegal status stops his progress. An advocacy center with its many female volunteers and interns is one major setting,the detention center another.
We see frustrated language-misfits and party scenes of hope. Everyone is working assiduously to send money “back home”,for as Samba opines:”People count on me!” When a court hearing rules OLFT or deportation status for Samba,we want to learn more about immigration law,and France’s case by case, mystery-shrouded choices.Samba uses his charm and humor as a survival skill.
Yet,for all the world-citizen feel,”Samba” is a realistic romance of sorts between volunteer Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Samba Cisse (Omar Sy). Samba, a Senegali, has been working in France for a decade.Alice has had a breakdown, a divorce, and is a fifteen year corporate “burn-out”.She has trouble sleeping without pills.Samba has trouble not calmly smiling. Add Samba’s detention-found friend, Wilson,played show-stoppingly by Tahar Rahim and delight is in the air,literally.
The film begins wonderfully at an up-scale wedding with samba music. Everyone is dancing. We have gold Art Deco embossed cake tiers,white, feathered palm trees, confetti and a camera roll through chefs and sou chefs to waiters and platers, ending with the clean-up crew and the dishwashers. There is nothing muted about the structure of inequity. Kitchen workers are treated well,taking smoking breaks in the alleyway, and foil wrapping wedding leavings for the taking. The film’s story arc is choppy just like the lives it portrays. We go back and forth between Alice and her friends and Samba and his. Jonah,who is Congolese provides a character test for Samba. One the French award-winning Sy shows remorse for failing.
There are lots of allusions to boundaries.”I feel like I am going off the rails” and “I crossed the line”. Samba early on tells Alice that he has had a lot of help over the years,but that she is different: no law student,no piercings,not over eight-five. Alice shares that she has thrown cell phones and pulled another’s hair out, been in therapy, petted horses and done watercolors to calm her craziness. Samba’s uncle refers to Alice as “the depressive”. We root for the joyful Samba to provide balance and that they get “a house by the lake and everything they need”.
Enjoy the roof-top chases,the lime-basil macaroons,the lucky T-shirt and the pinky ring removal,the faulty shower and the dancing.My favorite line was when Wilson,really Walid, an Arab pretending to be Brazilian says no to pine kernels in his tea. “You will blow my cover!” becomes the cry of the 25,000 pending deportations targeted every year.