Reviewed by GREG KING
Directors: Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Youngar Fall, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo, Helene Vincent.
The wonderful, upbeat and life affirming comedy drama The Intouchables, about the relationship between a paraplegic and his carer from the wrong side of the tracks, was one of my favourite films from 2011. And it seems that the rest of the world loved it too, as it grossed over $440 million. However, the follow up film from directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, which also looks at an unusual friendship, is nowhere near as crowd pleasing nor as accessible.
Based on a novel written by Delphine Coulin, Samba is a bittersweet, cross cultural romantic drama with a dark edge. It also explores the plight of refugees in detention and illegal immigrants in France, a theme that will resonate strongly with local audiences here in Australia. Samba balances politics with some broad humour, but somehow it is not as engaging nor as lively as the pair’s previous film.
The film reunites the directors with their The Intouchables star Omar Sy, who plays the eponymous Samba. He is a refugee from the African nation of Senegal who has lived in France for over a decade, working as a kitchen hand, and living in the small and cramped apartment he shares with his uncle Lamouna (Youngar Fall). But after he is arrested and detained by authorities he faces deportation. He meets with immigration lawyer Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a senior executive who has recently undergone a burnout and undergone a temporary career change. A novice intern on her first day of the job, the inexperienced Alice ignores her colleague’s advice not to give out her phone number to clients as it can only lead to trouble. And soon Alice is drawn into a complicated romantic relationship with Samba.
The charismatic Sy has a wonderful screen presence. Here he brings a combination of anger, frustration, humour and compassion to his performance in a role written specially for him. Gainsbourg is also quite appealing with a more introspective performance as the naive, shy and emotionally unstable lawyer drawn towards Samba’s wild nature, and it’s nice to see her doing something a bit more lightweight after her recent emotionally draining films for Lars Von Trier.
But the standout character in the film comes from Tahar Rahim, from A Prophet, etc, who brings plenty of energy and humour to his scene stealing performance as Wilson, a Brazilian refugee who befriends Samba and helps him land some menial jobs while he tries to avoid being deported. He enlivens the screen every time he appears with some wonderful slapstick comedy, but he inextricably goes missing for much of the last half hour or so, and his absence is noticed.
Nakache and Toledano have a strong empathy for their characters, and they ensure that the audience can also sympathise with them and their plight. But there are also a few moments that take the material to some darker places, such as Samba’s confrontation with a former detainee. The film has been shot on location by Stephane Fontaine (Rust And Bone, etc), who captures the more gritty and poorer neighbourhoods of Paris. But the pair fail to recapture the same buoyant, upbeat mood and palpable chemistry that drove their previous film.
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