There is a misconception. When you tell someone you are going to a 'Foreign Film', I think a lot of people still think of the type of movie that was once the norm. When films from other countries first started to get wide release here (and wide means at select art cinemas in only the largest cities), films like Fellini's "Amacord", Godard's "Breathless", Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows", Bunuel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouisie" were the norm. These films present viewpoints unlike anything seen in a major American film, in unique ways, challenging the viewer to think about things a little differently. And they have subtitles.
A rising tide of American filmmakers like William Friedkin, Martin Scorcese, Alan Pakula and many more were influenced by these European films shaping the look and feel of many seminal American films from the 70s.
But with the proliferation of movie screens and the rise of distributors like Miramax, the Weinstein Company and specialized distribution from major studios (Sony Pictures Classics), it is not unusual for a foreign title to 'break out', showing in screens across the country, making millions of dollars. The key to one of these successes? The films are made by filmmakers who are now more influenced by American filmmakers. American films are still the dominating force in world cinema and a new crop of international filmmakers grew up watching the likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and more recently Quentin Tarantino and, unfortunately, Michael Bay. As a result, foreign films have become more mainstream allowing a larger audience to watch them and get behind the more American stories, pacing, special effects and action. And they still have subtitles.
Most of the Foreign films experiencing wide release today are barely 'foreign films'. The most challenging and unusual aspect of these mainstream hits? They have subtitles, which seems to be the major hurdle for many viewers. Really, foreign films today are so American this can be the only excuse.
So, when I say I am going to a foreign film these days, it is usually a pretty marketable film, something that could easily be remade by an American studio- French-Canadian "Starbuck" becomes the Vince Vaughn vehicle "Delivery Man", the French Luc Besson production "District B13" becomes the American Luc Besson production "Brick Mansions" starring Paul Walker - to remove those pesky accents and those darn words running across the bottom of the screens.
"Samba", the new film French film from co-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, the directors of "The Intouchables", is a good case in point. The characters speak French, but the film is almost too American.
Samba (Omar Sy, the magnetic lead in "The Intouchables") is an immigrant who has lived in Paris for ten years, working one job after another, trying to earn a living and enough money to send back home to his mother. He regularly submits applications to the government to try to change his status and become a legal resident. The police pick him up and send him to an Immigration facility. There, he meets volunteer Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg, "Melancholia", "Nymphomaniac", the upcoming "Independence Day" sequel), on leave from her stressful job. She is instantly drawn to Samba and does things she isn't supposed to do, like give him her phone number. He is released, but runs into trouble again, prompting him to give her a call. The more time they spend together, the closer their relationship becomes. Along the way, Samba meets Walid (Tahar Rahim), an Arab immigrant pretending to be Brazilian, and the two become friends, helping each other out of and into one problem after another.
One thing I recently learned is that "The Intouchables" made $500 million worldwide. That is a huge amount for any film, from any country. So it makes sense the directors would want to reunite with their star and create a film specifically for him. Both films are similar in tone, but with very different narratives. In each, the filmmakers want you to laugh, they want you to cry, they want you to leave the theater with that 'feel-good', happy, fuzzy state-of-mind. The films are fairly straightforward mixes of drama and comedy with some slapstick and dancing to popular music thrown in. You could almost say it is a formula.
Does the formula work? Sure. For the most part. Sy's personality and onscreen charisma help to make up for a lot of problems, allowing the filmmakers to waltz through the more problematic parts of "Samba". Every time Sy is on screen, it is difficult to take your eyes off him as he takes us on the journey with this man who is simply trying to make his way in the world. And because Sy is in almost every frame of the film, it mostly works.
But at times, it becomes a little too slapstick. Sy and Walid do a series of jobs and each has its problems. These are presented in brief moments and resemble something reminiscent of an "I Love Lucy" episode. In fact, I think Lucille Ball probably did do one or two of the jobs in episodes of "The Lucy Show", getting into similar problems.
Humor in a film like "Samba" is fine, but slapstick moments make it seem a little too calculated. Like they are trying to do something for everyone, trying to give everyone a little piece of the film to enjoy, to help ensure another $500 million success.
As Alice works to help Samba get through the mess that is his life, they become closer and this leads to a relationship. The relationship builds well and seems more natural because it takes a while to come about. It also leads to some laughs. But it also seems a little forced because is shouldn't happen, yet does. There are a series of moments showing other volunteers working with other immigrants. A relationship between any of these would never occur due to cultural, social, age, personality, outlook, or communication differences. This is something we would expect to happen in an American film, because the leads are required to have a romantic relationship. In a foreign film, you would hope to see more influence from the culture, from film history, you would expect the filmmakers to delve deeper and make the relationship a little more difficult or unusual, something that is different from what you might see in an American film.
There is another common thread between the two films – people dance to popular tunes. In "The Intouchables", Sy does a dance to an Earth, Wind & Fire song during a birthday party. in "Samba", one of the elderly woman who volunteers really gets down to a Bob Marley song. Here, the moment seems more out of place because we haven't spent a whole lot of time with this character. There is no reason for us to be watching this. This makes it seem like a calculated moment, something to appeal to part of the masses. It is different when Omar Sy dances to the Earth Wind & Fire song in "The Intouchables" because he is the main character, and we know why he is letting loose to the classic.
"Samba" is a good film. But that's it. It isn't special enough or interesting enough to make it memorable. And a large part of the problem is that it is simply too gentrified in an effort to make it appeal to too many people. Really the only thing that makes this a "Foreign Film"? It has subtitles.