Dir: Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakache. With: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo, Helene Vincent, Youngar Fall, Christiane Millet, Jacqueline Jehanneuf, Liya Kebede. 15 cert, 118 min
If anything of 2011’s Weinstein-heralded French crowdpleaser Untouchable still lingers in the collective memory, it probably isn’t the easy sentiment or questionable racial politics, but the loose-limbed physical charisma of star Omar Sy, grooving effortlessly to Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”. The title of writer-directors Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s follow-up Samba stands, therefore, as something of a false flag: it refers not to that pulsing Brazilian rhythm, but to the nickname of Sy’s character here, a paperless Senegalese immigrant in Paris given precious little to dance about.
For some while, the closest the new film comes to a musical sequence is its opening movement: a continuous one-shot prowl around a wedding reception, held in a restaurant that loses glitz with every camera twist. Upfront: showgirls, confetti, revellers and cake. Out back: Samba and his crew of predominantly black, hired-help dishwashers. Having thus situated their protagonist – in anonymous suspension, aiming for legitimate citizenry while resisting attempts to pack him back to Dakar – Toledano and Nakache toss him an ally, and eventual lover, in Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an immigration adviser with a past and a handbag full of pills.
These filmmakers are stuck on this opposites-attract idea, but the crowdpleasing now comes with good conscience: the migrant stories Alice compiles demonstrate a degree of honest field research. As the film doggedly pursues Samba between nocturnal cash-in-hand gigs, doing the dirty work of a society that officially frowns on his presence, it shapes up as diet Dardennes, Ken Loach-lite. The directors retain a curious fondness for turn-of-the-Eighties funk as social panacea: often it works (who could resist the Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp”?), although the Diet Coke-ad moves Samba’s pal Wilson (Tahar Rahim) busts on a window-cleaning gantry form a rather obvious bid to turn this civics lesson into A Good Time.
They display, however, far more interest in these characters than Untouchable’s crudely drawn antagonists ever merited. There’s one lovely three-in-the-morning service-station rapprochement between Samba and Alice: no music, scant choreography, just good actors, over lousy coffee, evoking a sense of disparate lives meeting in a nondescript middle. Sy is such an attentive listener in close-up that you instantly grasp the frazzled Alice’s attraction; if she’s less well defined, Gainsbourg’s nervy intelligence and clenched-jaw resistance to sentimentality hold the interest nevertheless. It hasn’t its predecessor’s razzle-dazzle, but Samba’s the surer-footed endeavour: for once in popular cinema, the problems of the First World come in second behind those of the Third.
Samba is now playing in selected cinemas.