From: Silver Screen
“Limbo” tells a refugee story with incredible visuals and hilariously bone-dry humor
Like its title suggests, “Limbo” leaps into the neverending uncertainty of refugees who await their asylum requests after leaving their homes. With such a serious subject matter, director Ben Sharrock delivers a film that not only pays respect to the hardship of refugees, but inserts comedy in subtle yet powerful ways.
Omar (Amir El-Masry), a young musician who plays the oud, has just arrived on an unnamed island in Scotland after leaving his home to avoid the Syrian Civil War. His parents, who are never seen, but only heard over the telephone, are safe in Turkey and worry over him. For Omar, rural Scotland is nothing like he has ever witnessed before.
There’s a somberness to the cold, wet, gray Scottish landscape that lends to this film’s incredible cinematography. Landscapes of the coast, hills and bristling grasslands amplify the feelings of depression and isolation. Locations are repeated again and again to stress the tiring and repetitive nature of the refugees’ lives.
It’s also worth noting that the majority of this film is shot in 4:3, a decision that I personally enjoy. Directors like Wes Anderson use this square-like aspect ratio to highlight the framing of each element and the symmetry in each scene, and it is used to great effect here. Some scenes feel almost like portraits, as we get really close-up shots of Omar and the other characters to understand their emotions or lack thereof.
Waiting with Omar is his new friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a Freddie Mercury-loving optimist from Afghanistan who tries to lift everyone’s spirits. After discovering Omar’s talents, Farhad volunteers to become his agent and suggests a “night of Syrian music” for the island to enjoy.
However, there’s one problem. Omar hasn’t played his oud, which was his grandfather’s before him, since he arrived in Scotland. He simply carries it everywhere he goes, like a crutch. Omar struggles to accept his realities and regularly reminisces over his old life, a feeling that only grows as his parents beg him to reconnect with his brother, Nabil (Kais Nashif), who has stayed in Syria to fight.
The sound design in this film is immersive — it feels as though the wind is just always blowing in Scotland, and it’s meant to make us feel uncomfortable. The sound and foley work is so intricate, and we can hear every little detail that we see. And it is absolutely mesmerizing to experience the oud for the first time.
El-Masry is captivating in every scene and stands out as Omar. His conversations with his parents in the telephone booth, which are performed in Arabic, are heartbreaking and visceral. It’s an example of how deliberate language is used throughout every scene. While Omar sometimes has trouble with local slang, some of the Scottish characters that he meets exhibit comically strong dialects, even as they shout racial slurs at him.
There’s a lot of ways that a film can show racism, and I love Sharrock’s take. We get shown many instances of whiteness: a favorite of mine is an elderly lady on a mobility scooter brandishing a Scottish flag, who takes one look at Omar and Farhad, then proceeds to drive away in fear and disbelief, but at a snail’s pace. Interweaving humor with whiteness is a powerful way to integrate racism into comedy, as it doesn’t play off of racist stereotypes, but instead satirizes and critiques the ones who benefit from racism.
“Limbo” takes the best elements of drama and comedy to create a simply beautiful film. The humor is bone-dry, smartly written and balances out the sometimes solemn narrative. Films that highlight and humanize the refugee story are crucial for filmmaking today, as it not only educates but gets viewers involved in the conversation.
Absurd and quirky at times, but elegantly human at others, Sharrock’s second feature film delivers a crucial story with impactful maturity. For anyone who’s felt like a stranger in a strange land, you know exactly how Omar feels. And “Limbo” is exactly that. The result is an experience that demands attention for its visuals, humor and compelling story. It deserves every minute.
“Limbo” is scheduled to release in theaters on April 30th, 2021.