2021, R, 104 min. Directed by Ben Sharrock. Starring Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Kais Nashif, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., April 30, 2021
In terms of missed opportunities, losing out on a Cannes Film Festival premiere must rank pretty highly. But with a little luck, even an aborted film festival circuit in a pandemic year was not enough to dull enthusiasm for Limbo, Ben Sharrock’s powerful dramedy about the personal Scottish hell of one Syrian refugee.
Scotland may not have been the first place Omar (El-Masry) had in mind when he fled war-torn Syria, but it is where he finds himself waiting out notice of his permanent refugee status. As an accomplished musician, Omar carries with him the memories of his former life; meanwhile, his brother Nabil (Nashif) stayed behind to fight, and Omar is wracked with anger and guilt about their different paths. Omar’s only real comfort in an uncomfortable country is Farhad (Bhai), another temporary refugee who has spent years waiting for his paperwork to come through and who gladly offers to show Omar the ropes.
In the hands of writer/director Sharrock – who spent a year living in Syria after college – the Scottish countryside has been transformed into its own outer layer of hell. Omar can often be seen, oud in hand, wandering aimlessly along gray country roads and hillsides. His one indulgence is a walk to the nearby phone booth to speak with his mother and father, who live in Turkey as refugees and struggle to support themselves. Omar himself grapples with his decision to leave; was he wrong to think the preservation of Syrian music was more important than the fight for freedom? He can’t be sure, and he finds himself unable to make music as a result.
Meanwhile, the Scottish people treat Omar and his fellow refugees with a coldness just shy of hostile. Each man is forced to attend a cultural assimilation program, a volunteer-led workshop that embraces the worst stereotypes of Middle Eastern and African immigrants. The men are told they can accomplish anything now that they are among Western culture; meanwhile, Farhad teaches Omar the best ways to fish unwanted clothing from the local charity center, as they are not allowed to work until their refugee status is confirmed. “You know they put us out here in the middle of nowhere to try and break us,” he says matter-of-factly.
This may seem like a heavy sentiment for a film billed as a light-hearted comedy, but much of the film itself feels like a cinematic coping mechanism. Limbo may be a smiling teardown of any society that actively facilitates the deportation of its most vulnerable inhabitants, but there’s a wildness in the film’s eyes – a darkness Sharrock only feels comfortable approaching through artifice and sentimentality – that betrays the political message underneath. Even Farhad, who suffers indignation with good cheer, reminds us that the stakes are indeed life-or-death for anyone facing involuntary deportation.
If Omar does manage to find some small piece of resolution for himself through music, this reprieve should not be confused with catharsis. Throughout the film, Omar is reminded by his father of an old family adage: a musician who doesn’t play music is dead. He may gather the courage to play the oud once more, but this is not the kind of film that offers him acceptance in his community. His prize is merely the right to live another day, and given what the village and home have to offer him, this prize has to be enough.