Samba begins with a remarkable tracking shot that gracefully moves from the midst of an outrageous wedding reception to the kitchen right off the dance floor where the film’s titular character (Omar Sy), a Senegalese migrant living in Paris, washes dishes. It’s an exquisitely swift encapsulation of his plight, wherein he willingly performs the menial work for the rich who obliviously benefit from his low-wage labor. The film, however, isn’t merely interested in the politics of immigration that force Samba to navigate Paris as an illegal alien when his request for citizenship is denied; it also explores the politics of identity. As he trades in his lucky football jersey for a more stiff suit and tie to blend in, reigning in his buoyant personality so as not to draw attention to himself, Samba reveals itself as a quest to maintain personal identity in a world where suppressing one’s true self is necessary in order to avoid detection. Even the migrant friend, Wilson (Tahar Rahim), he briefly makes turns out to be an Algerian masquerading as a Brazilian. Everyone here tries so hard to be someone else.
That goes for Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the case worker at the immigration advocacy center assigned to Samba, as well. Her employment is court-mandated on account of a recovery program in the aftermath of a violent episode at her regular white-collar office job brought on by burnout from the rat race. She’s like an apparition floating between a former life and the dream of a more amicable existence, and finds herself drawn to Samba not so much physically as emotionally. Theirs is a camaraderie of coping, Alice giving him something to latch onto in the midst of uncertainty and Samba’s compassion providing the means for her to regain composure in the aftermath of her mental collapse. The film seeks to remind us that even when life is difficult there can be a respite, if not the first steps toward a remedy, in positivity. Yet even as Samba struggles to hold onto his identity, the film becomes entangled in an identity crisis of its own. Its tone becomes muddled as it turns extremely episodic, alternating between sequences of uproarious comedy, romantic warmth, and occasional sober commentary on the inane bureaucracy foiling hopeful immigrants. Eventually, outright melodrama takes over as directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano inadvertently manufacture a spectacularly antithetical happy ending.
A character from earlier in the film is reintroduced, with the screenplay unmasking his entire existence as nothing more than a story device allowing Samba the opportunity to assume this man’s identity and remain in France. It would serve as a sick joke against the immigration system, that it ultimately transforms even the most sympathetic person into a scam artist, if the film didn’t view this conclusion with such an oddly joyful air. Samba sees its main character’s decision not as a loss of his own identity, but a triumph of doing whatever it takes to stay where he is. Staying true to yourself never turned out to be so inconsequential.