Written by Anna Harrison
Limbo is the first film I have seen in theaters in over a year, and the euphoric rush I felt as I walked in and inhaled the smell of popcorn would carry over as I watched the film—though perhaps “euphoric” isn’t quite the word. Limbo follows Syrian refugee Omar (Amir El-Masry), stuck on an isolated Scottish island while his asylum request is processed, familial contact relegated to limited calls in a frigid phone booth (remember those?). It doesn’t quite sound uplifting, and indeed the film gets very dark, but with its deadpan humor and superb performances, Limbo remains full of charm and heart.
The film takes its time to get going, cinematographer Nick Cooke letting us sit in still wide shots that showcase the harsh landscape, the island’s population mere specks against the wild backdrop. At times, Limbo goes a little too slowly through its purgatory, but looks so desolately gorgeous that you don’t mind all that much. The lingering shots, only occasionally interrupted by a pan or tilt, add a hefty dose of charm or humor when needed, or force us to remain is discomfort or despair in the film’s darker moments.
While the island on which he has been stranded is isolated, Omar himself lives with three roommates: the upbeat Farhad (Vikash Bhai), stealer of chickens and lover of Freddie Mercury, and apparent brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), the former with dreams of becoming a soccer star for Chelsea and the latter with a more realistic take on life. The title of the film proves apt as we watch Omar trudge around this inhospitable island. He goes to cultural awareness classes taught by Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who display a lack of awareness themselves, teaching the refugees the past tense by saying phrases like, “I used to ride my elephant to work” or “I used to have a home before coalition forces blew it up.” (As an example of their own, one of the other refugees offers up, “I used to be happy until I came here.”)
Omar, almost always clad in a bright blue jacket, holds on desperately to the one piece of his old life he has left: his grandfather’s oud, a guitar-like instrument he carries around in a case everywhere he goes. Yet he finds himself unable to play, despite his father’s constant refrain—“A musician who does not play his instrument is dead”—ringing in his ears. Omar himself seems drained of life, dragging his untouched oud, mournfully staring at the ignorant locals who ask him not to “blow up shite or rape anyone” before offering him a ride to town.
Writer and director Ben Sharrock carefully balances melancholy with charm here, playing off Omar’s stoicism against roommate Farhad’s relentless cheer as well as the absurdity and ignorance of the locals. El-Masry delivers a performance that is by equal measures funny and heartbreaking even as Omar’s face remains passive for much of the film; the moment when Omar finally begins to react is all the more effective when contrasted with his earlier stoicism. Bhai’s Farhad provides a joyful foil, and while Wasef and Abedi share less screentime than their other roommates, Orebiyi and Ansah more than make up for it with a pair of wrenching performances.
Limbo seems like an impossible film, especially when many refugee stories today are treated by Hollywood with a somberness and self-seriousness better befitting a funeral than something involving living, breathing people. Yet Sharrock easily breathes a new life to this story, bolstered by El-Masry and his co-stars (yes, I have repeatedly mentioned how good El-Masry is; yes, he is that good), finding a deeper empathy in Limbo by focusing on the small scale and the irrefutably human, refusing to give us the standard shlock and making a film all the better for it.
Limbo played at the Atlanta Film Festival and releases theatrically on April 30.