Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 30.
In recent years, the plights of migrants have yielded many grim cinematic portraits, from “Mediterranea” to “Fire at Sea.” Given that track record, writer/director Ben Sharrock’s “Limbo” provides a welcome alternative. In this quirky, deadpan portrait of a Syrian refugee trapped in an asylum center in the remote Scottish island chain of the Outer Hebrides, the backdrop often provides the punchline to an ironic joke. Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young Syrian refugee intent on pursuing his musician dreams, gazes out at the vast, empty landscapes with a constant befuddled look that always says: That’s it?
Yet “Limbo” doesn’t have fun at Omar’s expense. Sharrock’s charming and insightful second feature justifies its title by using the droll backdrop to explore how the young man comes to terms with his nomadic status. Guided by El-Masry’s tender, understated performance and a tone that hovers between playful and sincere, “Limbo” manages to turn its downbeat scenario into a sweet and touching rumination on the quest to belong in an empty world.
Still, it takes some time to sort through what kind of movie “Limbo” wants to be. Its hilarious opening number finds a pair of zany locals educating the refugees about appropriate behavior on the dance floor, and Sharrock returns to that training room several more times. But the filmmaker’s deadpan style is soon undercut by the more muted, melancholic look at Omar’s routine: In between shrugging off the friendly overtures of his new roommate Farhad (Vikash Bhai) and gazing out at the unforgiving sea, Omar has morphed into a sad shell of his old self. He still carries around his grandfather’s oud (a Middle-Eastern instrument that resembles a guitar) but can’t seem to recall how to play it. (“A musician who doesn’t play his instrument is dead,” he recalls being told.) His only connection to his family comes from the island’s solitary phone booth, where he calls his judgmental parents, and their voices come to him like echoes of a distant path. And his older brother, who chose to remain in Syria and join resistance fighters there, serves as a constant source of guilt.
However, there’s a happier world just beyond Omar’s experiences, and “Limbo” excels whenever people reach out to its sad-eyed protagonist to invite him in. At the small home he inhabits with fellow refugees, he spends off-hours watching old episodes of “Friends” with Farhad, a peppy, mustachioed Freddie Mercury super-fan who insists he’ll become Farhad’s agent and take him on the road. (Farhad, who steals a chicken from the nearby farm and names it “Freddy Jr.,” deserves his own spin-off.) White locals seem keen on connecting with a new face in the lonely setting, and a Sikh grocery store owner educates Omar about racist English terms. Little by little, “Limbo” constructs a vivid world of characters united by vacant world around them, and happy to fill it in with friendly vibes.
The movie could easily fall into a bland sentimental routine from there, but Sharrock’s irreverent tone turns Farhad’s journey into a strange and involving one. It’s a bit too imitative of the filmmakers who excel at this sort of approach, most notably Elia Suleiman and Aki Kaurismaki, whose use of long, stationary takes and extended silence can turn a quiet moment of private reflection into comic gold. “Limbo” follows a similar trajectory with mixed results, and sometimes tries too hard. But Sharrock’s script excels at piercing the whimsical story with astute observations as various characters push Omar to stop wallowing in self-pity. “You walk around like that case is a coffin for your soul,” Farhad tells Omar, gesturing to his instrument. And it may as well be: The oud provides Omar with his only tangible connection to a world of musical bliss beyond his reach.
Having established this involving conundrum, “Limbo” arrives at a rushed, inevitable climax that falls short of the more sophisticated set of experiences leading up to it. Even then, however, the sweeping imagery of open fields and the yawning ocean provide a fascinating visual motif for the complex paradoxes of migrant experiences. Omar has found his way to a beautiful, welcoming place where people are eager to start from scratch. But “Limbo” allows for the possibility that some people prefer to keep searching, even when the solution presents itself. Omar doesn’t want a new home; with his musical talent and the memories of the world he left behind, he’s found an internal one by the very first scene. That keen observation gives “Limbo” more wisdom than all of its ironic asides combined.
“Limbo” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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