Films about the refugee experience tend to explore the obvious pain and waywardness of how bleak the situation can be. Mostly because, well, that’s how it really is for a lot of people around the world. So it’s interesting to see a new film like Limbo approaching this issue from a different angle, leaning into the off-beat, dry humor of asylum-seekers trying to get by in a country that is as foreign to them as they are to it.
Ben Sharrock’s sophomore feature stars Amir El-Masry as Omar, an oud musician from Syria who fled the country during the real-life civil war, leaving his family behind for his own safety and maybe a chance to make some money. He’s currently in the limbo of awaiting asylum on a remote, Scottish island, a narrative decision that helps strain his isolation between these two worlds. The Scottish inhabitants of this fictional countryside, a dull and drab location to be clear, treat Omar and his fellow refugees as inconvenient outsiders, or with complete indifference. The film begins and is intercut with hilariously stiff cultural awareness classes (with teachers played by Kenneth Collard and Sidse Babett Knudsen), where the refugees are taught how to supposedly acclimate, despite many of them hoping to eventually return home.
Throughout the film, it’s not very clear what Omar himself wants to do in the long term, and that’s intentional. Though he was a promising musician in his hometown, a hand injury has effectively stalled this career path. He’s a man at a crossroads that supposedly leads nowhere, and his apparent apathy makes the situation even more hopeless. Fortunately, the film pulls back on this melancholy by forging a tender, optimistic bond between Omar and fellow refugee Farhad (Vikash Bhai), who immediately takes an interest in his new friend’s musical talents and encourages him to make the most of his new surroundings.
It would be easy to compare Limbo to one of Yorgos Lanthimos’s early films, mostly in the way it uses wry visuals to tell poignant stories. Or even Wes Anderson in terms of its staging and setting specificity. But it would be simplistic to write the film off as a single flavor of comedy or dramedy. It’s equal parts sweet, sad, and funny, much like real life itself. Its main shortcoming is the slow burn of Omar’s character growth, but this itself is a strength in allowing for his story to feel more universal to the widespread plight of people just like him. You can feel Omar’s loneliness almost to a fault, and there isn’t enough humor to overcome some of the film’s more saccharine elements, which involve even darker, harsher developments with side characters who aren’t explored to their fullest extent.
At times, Limbo is even playful with its commentary on the absurdity of western culture, when characters are so bored in their new environment they choose to bicker over familiar debates about the relationships in “Friends.” And the classes themselves are when the film truly feels like an extension of an idea, probably the original concept Sharrock had in mind when building out his screenplay. Though it’s clear Sharrock and cinematographer Nick Cooke also had a keen interest in using the landscape shots here to creatively use aspect ratio as a clever plot device. But for many, Limbo will be a frustrating movie in spite of its relevant message and well-drawn filmmaking.