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Posts Tagged ‘Tamar Rahim’

Following the dismal events of the last few days, a trip to the cinema to see something genuinely diverting and perhaps even a bit uplifting definitely seemed like a good idea, but somehow none of the industrially-tinged blockbusters occupying the multiplexes felt like they would do the trick. Full-on escapism would have felt oddly inappropriate too. In the end, and prompted mainly by a rather engaging trailer, I ended up going to see Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s Samba, a film about the life of an illegal immigrant living in modern-day Paris. An odd choice, perhaps? Well, maybe.

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Our main character is Samba Cisse (Omar Sy), a Senegalese man who has been living in France for the last ten years, and who as the film opens has just applied for a residence permit. All that results is a very swift trip to a facility for holding illegal immigrants and an appointment in front of a judge. It also leads to a meeting with Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a businesswoman taking a sabbatical after a fairly severe bout of executive stress, who is helping people in Samba’s position. Despite the strict instructions of her colleague Manu (Izia Hegelin) not to get too involved with their clients, Alice finds herself providing Samba with cereal bars,¬†sleeping pills and her phone number.

The somewhat byzantine workings of the French immigration system result in Samba being released, under strict instructions to leave French territory, but with no actual requirement to do so. He opts to stay in Paris and somehow try to scrape a living without drawing the attention of the authorities, which is a little tricky given he doesn’t have an actual work permit. Nevertheless, Samba and his best friend Wilson (Tamar Rahim) embark on a string of jobs in the black economy, even as the two of them get to know Alice and Manu rather better. But with the odds so heavily stacked against them, is there any real hope of long-term happiness?

If you turn up to see Samba, you will find many things awaiting you, but I would not be discharging my responsibilities if I left you with the impression that political impartiality was one of them. This is not a film attempting to give a balanced view of the immigration debate. The directors set out their stall in a very assured opening shot, in which the camera moves in a single take from a wedding reception in full swing – all careless affluence, glamour, self-indulgence and delight – into the depths of the kitchens of the hotel in which it is being held, finally settling on Samba, doing the hot, exhausting, filthy job of a kitchen porter. (Perhaps my own experiences working in the restaurant trade have left me a little biased.) Illegal migrant workers, the film suggests, are largely invisible – largely because they have to work very hard to be so – but they are every bit as human as the rest of us, with the same capacity for hope, joy, guilt and despair.

What stops Samba from being a strident, one-note piece of agitprop is that it doesn’t just bang on and on about the unfairness of the lot of immigrants. The thing that makes it, I think, a very fine film indeed, is that it does attempt to capture the totality of the experience of all the characters involved – there are some tough scenes, and perhaps even heartbreaking moments, but also ones of delight and camaraderie, and scenes both comic and touching. The central strand of the plot is the slowly-developing relationship between Samba and Alice, but this is far from the sole focus of the film, which sometimes feels almost soap-opera like in its profusion of storylines and characters. Not all of the elements of the narrative feel fully developed, but there is at least an attempt to present the numerous characters – not just the four leads, but also Samba’s uncle, and various other characters from the immigration support agency – fairly and in depth. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just people trying to find their own way to happiness.

The downside to the freewheeling, episodic structure is that the conclusion of the film perhaps feels a little contrived, but by this point – if you’re anything like me – you will feel so invested in the characters that you’ll be more than willing to cut the film some slack on this point. This is surely largely due to the performances of the leads: Sy and Gainsbourg are both utterly convincing and highly engaging – and, in Sy’s case, hugely charismatic as well. It’s no surprise to me that Sy has already started appearing in American movies (nor much of a surprise that these are fairly undemanding popcorn movies like Days of Future Past and Jurassic World).

Perhaps Samba does work a bit too hard to look on the bright side, but it’s still a film which is filled to the brim with warmth and compassion and the love of living, things which are often either wholly absent from commercial Anglophone cinema, or at least feel counterfeit. It’s by no means perfect, but it gets all the important things right, and watching it is a memorable and – yes – uplifting experience. We read a lot of fairly negative things about France in the British press these days, but any country capable of making a film like this one has got at least something going for it.

 

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Five or six years ago, I was startled to see that the official start of Big Summer Movie season had crept forward to the start of May, when – back before the coming of Day and Date releasing – it always used to be no earlier than June. Now, it seems that the year’s really big popcorn blockbusters are starting to appear as early as the back end of March. You might think that this was bad news, should you be the kind of person disinterested in the collected oeuvre of Stan Lee or any kind of film predicated on a massive special-effects investment.

I would tend to disagree, as the more big movies that come out to dominate the multiplexes, the more cover they provide for the smaller independent cinemas to indulge in counter-programming – showing films for a different audience. (Of course, if you don’t live near a smaller independent cinema, you are basically stuffed, but that’s the modern world we have made for ourselves.) Currently reaping the counter-programming dividend is Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (or, in the versione originale, Le Passe).

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Asghar Farhadi is most celebrated for a series of Iran-based films, and long-term readers may recall the ‘stroke a bandicoot’ campaign I launched after seeing his 2009 movie About Elly…. The Past is set in a more familiar context, but it’s another acutely-observed human drama.

Central to the story is Marie, played by Berenice Bejo (who’s most famous for The Artist), a Parisian woman whose life is largely dominated by her chaotic domestic situation: she shares her home with two daughters from a long-since-concluded relationship, and the son of the man whose child she is carrying and who she intends to marry. He is Samir (Tahar Rahim), an average sort of guy. However, their relationship has an awkward, never-to-be-discussed issue at its centre, something which threatens to destroy Marie’s relationship with her hostile elder daughter (Pauline Burlet).

Our route into this complex, intimate situation is to see it through the eyes of Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), an Iranian man to whom Marie is still technically married. He’s in town to finalise their divorce, but while catching up with his stepchildren finds himself sucked into the tensions between them and their mother’s intended new husband.

So, no jetpacks, no biblical apocalypses, and no musical numbers in this one, then (there isn’t even any non-diegetic music, which appears to be something of a Farhadi trademark). What there is is a forensically-precise examination of the intersections and interdependencies of a handful of lives, and the way in which the regrets and mistakes of the past can act as a dreadful drag-anchor on the hopes of the present and future.

The subtleties and nuances of the central situation are presented with great skill, and, it seemed to me, forethought: for example, the fact that Ali is not the actual father of any of the children he’s helped to raise is significant, giving him a sense of binding responsibility towards them but crucially barring him from having any real authority. His well-intentioned efforts to help resolve the situation are arguably counter-productive, but it seemed to me that one of the themes of the film is that everyone is locked in a sort of emotional stasis, unable to make any progression or find any sort of resolution – increasingly, the key figure in the story becomes Samir’s wife, who is comatose and unable to provide anyone with the answers they need (the exact reasons for this are, of course, a crucial plot point).

If you were of a certain sort of disposition I expect you could make a case that The Past is implicitly a film criticising the collapse of the nuclear family as a social unit – Marie and Samir are both onto their second or third relationships, and so on – I didn’t get any sense of intention in this respect from the film. It’s too personal and particular for that – Farhadi just seems to be interested in these people, in this situation, rather than making general social or political points.

You could, I suppose, ask what the point of a film like this is¬†– it’s not attempting to push a point of view or send a message, except in the vaguest way. Well, it certainly has value as a piece of art for its own sake – the performances of Bejo and Mosaffa in particular are wonderful, subtle things, and Burlet is also very good. Farhadi’s direction is undertstated to the point of being invisible, but every key moment of the story, every emotion is captured.

I have to say that at over two hours long The Past really outstays its welcome by at least fifteen minutes, and the narrative has an odd, lumpy sort of structure – what looks like it’s going to be a film about Ahmad’s relationship with Marie and the children turns into one trying to uncover the truth about Samir’s ex-wife and her condition, in which Ahmad is a very peripheral character. The delicate exposure of layers of character and plot involved is very well done, but I think the film would have benefited had they found a way to get to this stuff rather earlier.

Still, this is a thoughtful, humane drama made for intelligent adults, not afraid to contemplate the complexities of modern life, even if it is naturally reluctant to offer any easy answers to the questions it discovers. Perhaps not quite as impressive as Asghar Farhadi’s Persian-language films, but still a viable alternative for anyone looking for a worthwhile trip to Arthouseville.

 

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