An illegal love affair: Samba review

The two-minute opening shot of Samba is one for connoisseurs. The camera glides through frenzied partying: chorus girls kick up their legs and confetti rains from the ceiling to rest on a huge white wedding cake. An alarmingly blue-eyed bride and her chiselled groom cut into it, to wild cheers from the crowd. The multi-layered concoction is whisked away into the kitchen. The music rapidly fades into the distance as the cake is wheeled by the chef and sous-chef past the entire kitchen hierarchy. The further it goes, the darker the skins become. In less than a minute, the camera has journeyed from the crème of white French society to the protagonist of this film, a burly African from Senegal who has spent the past 10 years washing plates. Samba Cissé (Omar Sy) is one of many thousand sans-papiers in France.

As the story unfolds, we quickly learn that, in fact, "paperless" people possess more documents than anyone – stacks and stacks of them. It's just that they never seem to be the right ones. Faced with a Kafkaesque judicial system that will decide if and when he will be deported, Samba turns to an organisation that provides support for illegal immigrants. This has just brought in Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a top manager in the food industry who has been advised by her doctor to do charitable work to cure her burnout. Meanwhile, Samba is caught in a routine check and put into custody.

Empty-eyed, pale and armed with a handbag full of Prozac, Alice visits Samba in prison. Both are tongue-tied and awkward during this first encounter, but this creates a kinship between them in spite of their huge differences. "Keep your distance and certainly never give them your phone number," orders Manu (Izïa Higelin), Alice's stern young boss. Five minutes later, Alice does just that. This is the beginning of an improbable love story that the film's writers have managed to make plausible.

As their lives intersect, you wonder which is worse off. Gainsbourg's Alice seems so frail she might snap any second. Samba is psychologically stronger, but his situation is desperate. After a court hearing, he is put in detention near Charles de Gaulle airport then released on condition that he immediately remove himself from France. In a moment of gallows humour, Samba makes a dash for the airport runway and sprints after a taxiing jumbo jet, beckoning it to stop and take him on board. The guards watch perplexed as he unsuccessfully attempts to self-deport.

Back in a tiny apartment he shares with his elderly uncle (Youngar Fall), he is briefed on how to behave: "Don't cheat on the subway, dress smartly in a suit, never wear your gold signet ring, only sans-papiers wear things like that."

Why someone like him who clearly wants to work and integrate is shunned by a rapidly ageing continent that urgently needs to reinvent itself remains a mystery in the film as much as it does in real life. Studies (see below) consistently show that tax revenues from immigrants far outweigh welfare benefits paid to them, but the electorate stubbornly refuses to let that clock.

To understand how serious people like Samba are about contributing in Europe, one need only read accounts of their journeys, from Bilal by Italian journalist Fabrizio Gatti to 2850 Kilometer by film-maker Miriam Faßbender. By the time they arrive on our shores, many illegals will have risked their lives several times over, and the death toll in the Mediterranean tragically underscores how disastrous Europe's culture of negligence has been.

Gatti compares them to astronauts who put their lives on the line to reach Mars. As they return to Earth after their hazardous voyage, a committee opens their capsule and, as a welcome, smacks each one hard in the face. Samba captures some of this warped logic using clean-cut cinematic devices. The film has weaknesses, but remains a bold and timely piece addressing the most important social question in Europe today.

When and where

Samba is on general release across Europe and is released in the UK and Sweden on 1 May.

The truth about migrants

In Germany, a study conducted by the Centre for European Economic Research concluded that migrants bring in significantly more tax revenue than they cost the state in hand-outs and benefits. Research in the UK by the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration looked more specifically at migrants from Europe – including Romanians and Bulgarians – and found that they contributed £20bn (€28bn) net to the British economy between 2001 and 2011. Meanwhile, in the United States, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research has underscored that migrants create more new jobs than they take from natives.