Atlanta Film Festival 2021 Review: Limbo

Written by Anna Harrison

85/100

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 trailer

Limbo played at the Atlanta Film Festival and releases theatrically on April 30.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Slamdance 2021 Review: A Brixton Tale

Written by Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde

50/100

A Brixton Tale the first feature film from Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers, unfortunately failed to connect with me. I believe it may do better with audiences in the United Kingdom who are more familiar with the social and class commentary that is going on within the picture. I was intrigued by the presence of footage shot in collaboration with community members. I usually think that this local knowledge in and of the community elevates a film, but that flourish was lost on me here. 

The film tells the story of the tumultuous, toxic, and fractured relationship between Leah, a vlogger, and Benji. The closest comparison I can make of this film is that it is vaguely reminiscent of Waves (2019) and Euphoria (2019) but with none of the polish those projects offered. Whereas, Waves and Euphoria were able to make American experiences somewhat universal, A Brixton Tale misses that mark, it was hard to connect at any level with what I was seeing on screen. I’ll be the first to admit that stories don’t have a responsibility to be universal but it was challenging for me to come up with any redeeming qualities that would justify the experience this details or any reason to make me want to rewatch it.  

I’ll concede that the directors did try to do something new by blurring the reality of Leah and Benji’s relationship and her documentary on screen but that is not enough to sustain the feature. The most effective part of the film was when we were getting Leah’s first person account of what was happening while reviewing footage on her computer screen. I really wish this first person narrative was explored in greater detail because it would’ve allowed me to form a deeper connection with the characters and understand where they were coming from.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.