French directing duo Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano hit the critical and box office bonanza in 2011 with their award-winning “The Intouchables.” They reunite with Cesar Award-winning actor Omar Sy for their newest offering, “Samba.” Once again focusing on social issues, in this case undocumented workers in Paris, the filmmakers use their deft touch to explore a tough subject with humor and sensitivity to create another winner.
“Samba” immediately thrusts us into the upstairs – downstairs economy of Parisian life. Opening at a posh restaurant in the midst of a spare-no-expense 20’s flapper-themed wedding, the camera, in an impressive single take, runs from the party to the bowels of the kitchen – from head chef and sous chefs down to the dishwashers. It’s here, in the back corner scraping off scraps of food that we find Samba (Sy).
As the work shift winds down, Samba learns from his Uncle (Youngar Fall), a legally documented immigrant who works in the same kitchen, that Samba has the chance to move up to the cooking line. As Samba makes the move to apply (again) for a legal work visa, he’s picked up for being an illegal and is under threat of deportation.
Helping Samba with his plight is pro-bono immigration advocate/volunteer Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her superior, law student Manu (pop star Izia Higelin). Ironically, Alice is dealing with her own baggage, in this case being put on a forced leave after a stress-induced emotional breakdown in the middle of a corporate meeting. This creates a nice juxtaposition of rich people problems versus poor people problems, but the filmmakers never let this slide into stereotypes.
Basing their script off of Delphine Coulin’s, “Samba pour la France,” the filmmakers worked with the book’s author, Delphine, and her sister, film director Muriel Coulin to give the film its authenticity. Nakache and Toledano also signed up for an internship at La Cimade, a French advocacy group. This steep research grounds the film when necessary, avoiding the clichés.
But not to worry, this is no dire documentarian account of the plight of the undocumented. The directors add a romance angle with Alice, and their trademark buddy-humor in the character of Wilson (“A Prophet’s” Tahar Rahim). An undocumented Brazilian, Wilson is a charmer with a zest for life, who leads Samba through a series of jobs with various identities.
Inspired by the Italians comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, Toledano explains in the film’s production notes,
“We were influenced by filmmakers like Ettore Scola, Dino Risi and Mario Monicelli, to name a few. They tackled real subjects with extraordinary emotion, empathy and humor in a way that made their ideas very accessible. We had those films in our heads when we made this movie.”
Nakache and Toledano’s names should be placed amongst that illustrious list of Italian directors with their latest, “Samba.”
Filmmaker Event: Omar Sy will appear on July 24 after the 7:15 p.m. Landmark Theatre Show for a Q&A.
“Samba” is 118 minutes, Rated R and opens in Los Angeles, July 24 at the Landmark Theatre.