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Samba – French rom-com shines light on lives of ‘illegal’ immigrants

This article is over 9 years, 1 months old
Samba combines the powerful tale of a worker’s struggle against deportation with a romantic comedy that doesn’t quite gel, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2452
Samba played by Omar Sy
Samba played by Omar Sy (left)

Directors Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano’s new French-language film Samba is a powerful drama about a Senegalese worker threatened with deportation.

The film opens in a surreal way, with what looks like a scene out of a 1920s Prohibition era party. 

Men in sharp suits and women in vintage dresses attempt to do the Charleston to terrible music.

It becomes clear that it’s a posh wedding party, but then we follow the waiters into the depths of the kitchen.

Here we’re introduced to Samba (Omar Sy), who works cash in hand washing the dishes.

While slow to start, this sequence draws you into the film. It juxtaposes the extravagance of the rich with the precarious life of migrant workers. 

Following Samba’s story makes the drama really compelling.

He’s worked in kitchens “illegally” for more than ten years, but was finally offered a permanent contract by his boss.

Thinking that this will help his immigration case, Samba takes it to the border office.

He’s forced to queue for hours waiting to hand in the papers. But we see little acts of solidarity, as Samba keeps another migrant’s place who’s been standing for hours. 

Racist

His reward for trying to go legal is arrest by the racist border cops. Samba is thrown in detention and faces deportation.

The other lead character Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has taken a sabbatical to do charity work as an immigration case worker.

When her and a colleague walk into the immigration detention centre, she’s clearly nervous and out of her depth.  

Her colleague calls the immigration service “bastards” for arresting Samba. “Should I take that down too,” Alice asks genuinely. 

It’s from this first meeting that Samba and Alice begin to fall for each other.

The bullying way the immigration cops are presented makes clear whose side the film is on.

We also see the diversity of the French working class, often played down in the mainstream.

The film is based on a powerful story. But the romantic comedy aspect, while not terrible in itself, doesn’t quite fit with it.

Samba, Directed by Oliver Nakache and Eric Toledano Koch Media. Out now

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