Limbo, directed by Ben Sharrock, is an incredibly moving look at the refugee crisis that expertly balances warmth with darkness.
Taking place on a fictional Scottish island, Limbo centers around Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian immigrant awaiting the results of his asylum claim. Omar wants to pursue his dreams of becoming a professional musician, but his sense of hope is fading away amid the harsh conditions. He carries his grandfather’s oud—a stringed, lute-like instrument—with him wherever he goes.
Forbidden from working, Omar finds some solace in connecting with fellow migrants, including with his new roommate from Afghanistan named Farhad (Vikash Bhai)—a bubbly Freddie Mercury fanboy who wants to become Omar’s agent. Their household is joined by Nigerian migrants Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), who’ve stuck together through adversity and engage in heated debates about the sitcom Friends.
Contending with judgmental locals, tone-deaf social workers, and extremely limited access to the outside world, they exist at the mercy of an often indifferent authority, with the threat of deportation ever-looming. As these characters wait for a chance to start their lives anew, Sharrock’s film reveals itself as tribute to empathy, community, and compassion within a world plagued by ignorant beliefs.
Difficult to pin down in a single genre, Limbo shares numerous similarities with the work of filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki in how it captures instances of deadpan levity amid heartbreaking circumstances. Sharrock frequently plants the camera for extended long takes where we observe the absurd yet sadly plausible situations these people have to endure. Presented in a condensed aspect ratio, the refugees’ surroundings seem almost otherworldly—foreboding and mysterious, with a perpetually dreary atmosphere that seeps off the screen thanks to cinematographer Nick Cooke’s painterly compositions. Shots of Omar walking through the windswept terrain, oud in hand, convey the bleak nature of his setting, as well as the weathered nature of his soul in a blackly comic fashion.
Moments of comedic relief are contrasted with grim reality, and Limbo never loses sight of the humans at the center of it all. The opening scene, for example, involves a hilariously over-the-top skit about consent, performed by social workers Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), while Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started with a Kiss’ blares in the background—the camera cutting back to a room full of male refugees, staring blankly back at them without interest. This satirical tone is maintained throughout, showcasing the childishness of prejudice, along with spotlighting an endearing, three-dimensional cast of characters as they struggle to maintain their identities.
Omar, our protagonist, experiences survivor’s guilt over leaving his family behind. His brother, Nabil (Kais Nashif), remained in Syria to join the resistance fighters, and his parents reside in Turkey. He’s only able to communicate with them via a phone booth located in the middle of nowhere, going through his days with a detached, defeated attitude. His journey is largely an internal one, as he reflects on past choices and possibilities for his future. Sharrock’s script does an admirable job rendering Omar as a multilayered, deeply conflicted person. El-Masry also gives a nuanced performance, sparking both sympathy and amusement from the way Omar sometimes barely reacts to the idiosyncratic souls around him.
Bhai’s portrayal of Farhad, however, remains the true stand-out. Although his demeanor is relentlessly upbeat, and Bhai’s line delivery is spot-on (particularly when a nearby chicken becomes involved), there’s a reason for Farhad’s attitude—it represents his own way of asserting humanity in the face of dehumanizing pressures. His bond with Omar is heartfelt, and the two actors have solid chemistry with one another.
While the final act is perhaps too rushed for its own good, Limbo still builds an emotional crescendo leading into its bittersweet conclusion. Some viewers might take issue with its sentimentality, but there’s little to criticize beyond minor nitpicks. Sure, the locals might be oversimplified, but there’s merit in showing some of them breaking through their prejudgements to see the larger picture. By the time the credits rolled, Limbo had caught me off guard with its poignancy—providing a life-affirming resolution that’s nevertheless grounded in uncertainty.
Confronting timely subject matter with grace, humor, and fleshed out characters, Limbo is a masterful piece of cinema that deserves to be celebrated. It’s one of 2021’s absolute best so far.
Words by Alex McPherson
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