Senegalese illegal immigrant Samba Cissé (Omar Sy) is trying to regularise his stay in France after being picked up by the authorities. He strikes an instant rapport with beleaguered voluntary immigration officer Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who has been assigned his case, alongside her bolshie and far more experienced colleague, Manu (Izia Higelin). Samba and Alice’s mutual obsession for each other evolves into tentative romance.
When Samba is released, on the condition that he repatriates to Senegal immediately, he attempts to reabsorb into French society albeit completely off the (authorities’) radar. Whilst waiting out the one year embargo on making a fresh application for leave to remain, he earns a crust doing cash-in-hand jobs and spends what free time he has searching for the long-lost fiancée of his former cell mate Jonas (Isaka Sawadogo), only to seduce her in the process. In the course of his misadventures, Samba keeps bumping into fellow illegal immigrant from Brazil; fun-loving, loose cannon Wilson (an uncharacteristically cheerful Tahar Rahim). Like many others in their situation they hustle whilst dreaming of a more secure future and trying to squeeze in as much love and laughter as their clandestine life would allow.
Despite the re-hashing of the worn-out ‘big African buck in need of rescue from a little white angel’ cliché, (and virtually no attention paid to the plight of women in the same situation) there’s much more to ‘Samba’ than just an ill-advised affair between an official and her charge. Thanks to some first class performances, the leads prove their worth as vanguards de la nouvelle epoque of French cinema.
This is a world away from the odd-couple comedy of their previous international smash ‘Untouchables’, also starring Sy. Samba’s mood matches the ambiguity of its titular character’s limbo existence. Happiness is precariously brief and fear an unwanted and relentless companion. A credible story about life as an illegal immigrant would never get away with a neat, fairy tale ending. But enough light-heartedness leaves room for hope.