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In “Samba” the French writer-director duo of Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano try to rekindle the magic and phenomenal box-office success of their 2011 film “The Intouchables,” with the same leading man burdened by the same kind of problems against the same backdrop of a Paris unkind to African immigrants. “Samba” is essentially what the Japanese refer to as the “second loach under the willow tree,” meaning if someone was lucky enough to catch the first loach swimming under the willow tree, then he’s likely to wait for the second loach to show up, instead of trying something else.

“Intouchables” paired Senegalese muscle dude Omar Sy, with French actor Francois Cluzet, who played his rich, white quadriplegic employer. Now Sy takes center stage in the titular role as a Senegalese immigrant facing deportation. Samba came to France 10 years ago and since then he’s flitted from one menial job to another. But the police come around to let him know he’s got major visa problems, and it looks like Samba’s days in Paris are over. Enter Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a newbie immigration worker who’s warned by her boss to keep everything official and not to get personally or romantically involved with her cases. Alice decides to ignore him, and strikes up a friendship with Samba — which later leads to romance.

Is “Samba” the second loach or are Nakache and Toledano scraping the bottom of their barrel of tricks? At first glance, it would seem that the second loach is not as frisky as the first. The story is set up in much the same way: An initial antagonism with Parisian authority figures gives way to understanding and friendship. Sy turns on the energy and charisma he had going in “The Intouchables,” which contrasted nicely with Cluzet’s jaded and condescending millionaire. But this time around, the politics shift from an impoverished African versus privileged Parisian to a romantic relationship between an immigrant man and his female caseworker, which demands more nuanced performances and deeper emotions. Being an adventurous caretaker who inspires the stolid, conservative white man to go out and have a good time was one thing, but contending with the needs of a modern woman who feels like her professional life has hit a dead-end and her personal life is nonexistent, whose emotional fragility levels have already peaked and . . . you get the picture. All this calls for some major healing skills, and let’s not forget that Alice is the kind of woman who can sense male condescension from 100 meters away. Plus, she’s played by Gainsbourg, who has retained her elfin charm and teenage slimness for the past three decades. Samba’s plate is full.

Samba
Rating
Director Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Run Time 120 minutes
Language French, English, Portuguese, (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Now showing

The real question here is: Does he have what it takes?

Actually, Gainsbourg seems softer and more relaxed than she has in years, perhaps because she’s liberated from having to play the supersensitive, artistic sex symbol — an image that has defined most of her acting career, and one that directors like Lars von Trier deployed ruthlessly. It’s no wonder Alice looks so fatigued: a burned-out career woman ripe for a life-altering encounter with a man who knows how to roll with the punches. And Sy’s Samba comes through, though at times he’s too knowing and confident, tending to size up Alice’s vulnerability and drawing his own conclusions. Still, the pair get an intriguing chemistry going — almost managing to bypass the sociopolitical stuff and the more obvious issues of race (which, by the way, the film kind of dances around).

The directors make sure to land the story on the turf of the sweet and personal. No complaints there.

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