Note: The writer of this review watched Limbo on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
As the Syrian civil war stretches into its 11th official year, its humanitarian cost remains staggering. According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 6.6 million Syrians have been displaced, with 5.5 million of that number settling nearby in other Middle Eastern or North African countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. Others, though, have traveled outside of the zone of tangential cultural familiarity to North America or Europe, and Ben Sharrock’s Limbo captures the excruciating loneliness of their circumstances.
In contrast to on-the-ground documentaries like The White Helmets and The Cave, which have focused on the devastation within Syria, the entirely fictional Limbo shifts focus to the yawning chasm between those who left and those who stayed. Amir El-Masry winds the film around himself, communicating by his assessing gaze countless desires and traumas left unsaid. Much of Limbo is spent watching the actor’s character, Omar, walk around the unnamed Scottish island where he’s waiting to hear news of his asylum application. Omar, carrying his oud case, is often the only human figure on the town’s sole paved road, the marshy sands, or the ocean-sprayed rock. “It’s a good thing that God has made dreaming for free,” says one of Omar’s fellow refugees, and that kind of resignation—which walks the knife’s edge between optimism and despair—permeates Limbo.
It’s with Abbas Kiarostami’s eye for the beauty of natural landscapes and a wry grasp of the often-Kafkaesque asylum process that Sharrock creates a portrait of dual isolation: Omar is set apart in a place that is itself set apart. Filmed on the Scottish Uists (the first film to do so), Limbo begins with a cultural-awareness class that introduces the film’s slightly bitter sense of humor. “Sex: Is a smile an invitation?” is written on the classroom blackboard, and the entire lesson is meant to chasten the group of Black and brown men being taught by teacher Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen). She is ostensibly instructing them on how to behave with women and the differences between wanted and unwanted touching, but the implication is one of assumed misconduct. “Can anyone here tell me what Boris did wrong?” Helga asks after the demonstration, and that presumptuous sense that everyone in the room needs to be disciplined rather than welcomed seems to be shared by the entire town.
All of these men—who hail from countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and Ghana—have been waiting for an answer about their future. Some, like Farhad (Vikash Bhai), have been waiting for years. Others, like brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), have “only” been waiting months. The daily routine for those three and their recently arrived flatmate, Omar, is always the same. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, so they spend their days watching DVDs of American TV shows like Friends. Cellphone signal is poor, so they trade turns on the island’s only payphone, using phone cards to dial overseas. When they hear the mail truck, they all rush outside together, hoping for a letter sharing the outcome of their asylum application.
Sharrock sketches a backstory for each man, with Omar’s past the primary focus. He takes his grandfather’s oud (a lute-like Middle Eastern instrument) everywhere, although his broken arm keeps him from playing. His parents are barely getting by in Turkey, while his brother is somewhere in Syria, fighting in the war. As written by Sharrock, who lived in Damascus in 2009, the stilted phone calls Omar has with his parents cycle through worries on both sides. They fear Scotland is another Guantanamo Bay, a prison from which Omar will never leave; he is distressed to learn that his father has been busking. In response to Omar’s parents’ anxious questions, El-Masry imbues every “I don’t know” with increasing weariness.
The recent refugee-focused horror film His House mined the distrust of “native” inhabitants toward newcomers for its tense atmosphere, while Limbo chooses to find acerbic humor in the same sort of altercations. The lazy racism the town’s teenagers direct toward Omar (“You better not be planning any Al-Qaeda, ISIS shit here!”) is defused by his polite, bemused “Okay.” When Helga tries to teach the class how to properly phrase “I used to,” Boris’ example is “I used to have a beautiful house before it was blown up by Coalition Forces.” The film’s 4x3 aspect ratio is most impactful in scenes like this, cinematographer Nick Cooke centering the men’s blank, unsmiling faces in reaction to Boris’ statement. The narrowness of the frame forces us closer to what is caught within it, and the result is often bracing or achingly tender.
Some of the film’s fish-out-of-water comedy is a little too cutesy, like Wasef and Abedi arguing about whether Ross and Rachel were on a break. But Sharrock generally has a good sense of restraint; he knows when to drops out Hutch Demouilpied’s score to instead surround Omar with the crashing waves and endless wind of the Scottish shore, and also that it’s better to keep the focus on the labyrinthine asylum process than the nitty-gritty details of the varying factions involved in the Syrian civil war. Limbo skillfully deploys goofiness as a counterbalance to its steady awareness—conveyed thorough El-Masry’s finely tuned performance—that statelessness is its own burden, as substantial as the horrors of war and the familial legacy tied to Omar’s oud.