“Limbo” – Immigrant feature films frequently land in theatres and streaming services for probably a couple of reasons. These stories are commonplace threads within societies’ fabrics, and the protagonists face built-in conflicts simply by existing in their newfound environments.
In the U.S., we rightfully boast about our immigrant roots, and President John F. Kennedy said, “Everywhere, immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”
While the homeland may become enriched, many times, the aforementioned residents do individually struggle to find their way. Look to “Minari” (2020) and “Brooklyn” (2015) as recent examples. The Sullivan family had their troubles in “In America” (2002), and so did Carlos Galindo (Damian Bichir) in the aptly named “A Better Life” (2011), as he hoped for a better one.
Even though the on-screen leads wrestle with acceptance, they usually throw themselves into the foreign ecosystems, jockey for some footing, and attempt to survive and thrive. Naturally, the United States hasn’t cornered the market on immigration narratives, and “Lorna’s Silence” (2008) and “Monsieur Lazhar” (2011) – set in Belgium and Montreal, respectively – are two more of this critic’s favorites.
Writer/director Ben Sharrock’s eccentric dramedy is a notable immigrant story, but one with a twist. In “Limbo”, Omar (Amir El-Masry), a 20-something Syrian refugee, wishes to reside in the U.K., but he’s stranded on a desolate Scottish island while waiting for his paperwork to clear. In 2021, we live in a world of instant gratification, but the United Kingdom’s official “like” on his request doesn’t seem imminent, especially when his friend Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan native, has been stuck at this far northern outpost for 32 months and five days.
How far north? Omar, Farhad, and about two dozen others are waiting on the 57th parallel at a locale with barren, rocky grasslands that may resemble Washington’s Palouse commingled with gloomy, dormant volcanic buttes. You won’t find a Starbucks on every corner. Not on this isle because no such metropolitan districts exist. It does have a convenience store, but one with few creature comforts. Omar pops in one day and asks for sumac spice, but he might as well inquire about a Northern Californian wine, a Tesla sedan, or a one-way plane ticket to London.
Although this modest, sparse colony has some quirky charm, Sharrock’s setting of never-ending barren space – with an occasional domicile to lodge our lingering British-applicants – resembles a depressed Wes Anderson setting, one in desperate need of a humongous dose of Zoloft or maybe an array of pink and purple windmills.
Then again, that’s the point. While Omar, Farhad, brothers Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), and others sit in limbo, their environment doesn’t offer much reprieve, stimulus, or any path towards joy. Sharrock films his subjects with straight-on long shots, where his protagonists are small features within the frame. They could be leaning against a wall, standing at a bus stop, or calling on a pay phone, and the great, spacious outdoors dominates as a looming, unforgiving co-star.
The movie visually expresses that it’s a cold, cruel world out there with no obvious route towards salvation, and our heroes (and we) deeply feel it. This downer symbolism and stark reality blankets dozens of one-on-one exchanges that sometimes double as confessionals, as we learn about Omar’s and his compadres’ histories and explanations for attempting this impossible migration.
For Omar, he’s a musician and plays the oud (a type of guitar), but he’s lost his desire to perform. He usually sports a blue skiing jacket and a pair of khakis, but he (nearly) always wears the same glum face. Omar had a life back in Syria, but out of pure necessity to escape the violence, he copes with this legislated shelter-in-place, a concept that most of us living and breathing in 2020 and 2021 can unhappily relate.
El-Masry delivers a compelling, restrained performance, as his somber, stoic mood reflects his present happenstance, but not necessarily against the locals. Although a few detractors, including a pair of young hooligans, question Omar’s motivations, most of the resident Scots consider the in-process immigrants part of the community. Distrust is rare, and instead, a cautious, distant embrace fills the void. Omar’s reciprocity is with his purgatory predicament, not the native inhabitants.
Throughout the movie’s 103-minute runtime, Sharrock slowly reveals Omar’s celebrated and troubled past, and the character’s family actively imprints on both sides of his life-coin. Thankfully, our lead isn’t facing this abyss alone, as Farhad – his trusty brother-from-another-mother who appoints himself as his agent/manager for a future oud gig – offers guidance and friendship. Not only does Omar seek out him, but we do too! Bhai’s Farhad projects a subdued persona, but he’s a welcome joy with inciteful pearls of wisdom.
He may or may not have answers to, “How do you find it so easy?”, or “Do you think about who you were before all this?”
Still, he’s lived in this isolated in-between for nearly three years, so perhaps he can make sense of the absurdity.
“Limbo” does have some comedic elements, including a surreal opening scene with Hot Chocolate’s “It Started With a Kiss” as the musical accompaniment, but Sharrock’s film truly is thoughtful drama. It’s a deep character study about the immigrant experience, where a numbing waiting game and reflection about one’s self-worth are the built-in conflicts.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Focus, MUBI; Trailer credits: Movie Coverage