A group of dancers in sparkling 1920s garb gyrate on an extravagant stage, but the camera tracks back through a kitchen whose crowd of workers suggests not excitement but desperation. So begins Samba, an uneven tale of an undocumented Senegalese immigrant struggling to stay in Paris.
Samba (Omar Sy) starts off in that kitchen, but we see him move from one thankless job to another. He lives with his uncle, who says, “The undocumented have documents” — an apt statement of the frustrations of immigrant life.
Samba is at its best when highlighting such specificities, and at its worst when it makes sluggish attempts at humor: A subplot involving Samba’s rendezvous with the girlfriend of another illegal immigrant and a scene in which Samba’s brash Brazilian friend dances while window-washing stand out as particularly unnecessary interjections of mild bawdiness.
Samba’s relationship with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a volunteer at an immigration advocacy center, has moments of sweetness, but is painted in too-broad brushstrokes — she’s tightly wound, so at one point sleeping pills fall out of her bag.
Samba tries to adapt to her world, and in a poignant moment dresses in a buttoned-up “European” style. He looks uncomfortable and pretends to read a magazine about horses in the midst of a congested train — this scene, blending the frustrations of assimilation with dry humor, is the most concise expression of Samba‘s worthy but ultimately not quite successful goal of comic social realism.
Directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano
Broad Green Pictures
Opens July 24, Paris Theatre