There have been some titles of certain films lately that leave me scratching my head, but this is one of those occasions where this one word title perfectly describes the story. The people in this film are literally in limbo, they’re in a forgotten place and state, uncertain of what to become of their fate as this new arrivals in a fictional remote Scottish island await results of their asylum claims.
The main protagonist is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a well-educated Syrian musician who carries his grandfather’s Oud everywhere he goes. He ends up sharing a room in a rackety house with Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, who somehow still remains chirpy after having been on the island for about three years. The contrasting personality often creates an amusing exchange between them, especially as Farhad suddenly decides to adopt a chicken from a nearby, unattended farm. I suppose when one has absolutely nothing to do and barely anyone to talk to, having a pet seems like a good idea. There are also two West African refugees Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) along Omar’s journey who I initially thought as brothers. Each have their own dream and life goal, as we all do, but let’s just say how one of the characters end up is quite heartbreaking.
The vast Scottish Western Isles landscape is beautiful but feels desolate, which makes it even more evocative. As they say, sometimes the location becomes the character. The Scottish landscape truly helps you get into the characters’ head as they wait, and wait, and wait… with no hint or assurance whatsoever if their asylum papers would ever be granted. The culture class taught by husband/wife team Helga and Boris (Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard, respectively) offers absurd humor that’s both sad and amusing.
Ben Sharrock, in his sophomore feature effort, is definitely a filmmaker to watch. Limbo is a study of restraint as everything moves at a measured pace. The film has minimal dialog but it’s highly atmospheric. The slow-ness is deliberate, the camera takes its time following a character walking down a field or lingering for minutes as a character talks on the phone inside a phone booth. Sharrock acutely depicts a sense of loneliness and isolation that’s palpable and moving. In a sea of action films that just want to get your adrenaline going with endless high-octane action sequences, it’s actually refreshing to watch something that really allow you to immerse yourself in the story and the journey the characters are going through. I think some people might find the whole affair a bit too tedious, but I find it quietly absorbing given how it reminds me of my own life as an immigrant. Granted my experience before I finally became a US citizen were vastly different from Omar’s or Farhad’s, but I remember being in limbo while I was waiting for my H1B visa approval.
I love that Sharrock didn’t spoon feed us too much details of each character’s situation, but gave us enough hints to empathize with them. For example, the way he revealed Farhad’s situation in his home country, in just a simple sentence I understand why he didn’t mind the wait as he simply cannot go back. Small gestures of kindness involving a fellow refugee working at a small grocery shop is done really well that makes a seemingly obscure scene deeply memorable and meaningful.
I feel like by the end of the film I’ve spent time with real people instead of watching actors playing a part. Of course that is part of the beauty of not having big-name stars, but later on I recognized El-Masry from his supporting role in BBC’s miniseries The Night Manager. I really like his performance here, there’s a quiet grace and compelling vulnerability about his performance. He’s got a nice rapport with Bhai who’s also able to balance the humorous and earnest moments nicely.
There are plenty of films about the refugee experience, but LIMBO definitely stands out from the pack for its unusual wry approach. The film isn’t afraid to be melancholic without resorting to over-sentimentalism. It even veers into surrealism involving Omar’s brother. The musical number towards the end wonderfully celebrates Omar’s musical past and I find it so moving. Though the ending isn’t neatly tied in a big red bow with some questions remain unanswered, it does end in a hopeful note, which I think is as perfect an ending as one can get.
17 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: LIMBO (2021)”
I’ve heard amazing things about this. I hope to see it soon.
I hope you do, Steven. It’s a good one!
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I’ve seen the ads for this film popped up a few times on Twitter and IMDB, it sounds very interesting. The story kind of reminded me of when my family and I were traveling to the States and we had a long layover somewhere, I don’t remember exactly where. But at this place, many of the immigrants from Vietnam and other South East Asian countries were stuck living at this place and they basically have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I’ll have to ask my parents about it since I was only ten years old when we were there and don’t remember much about it.
Hi Ted, wow sounds like you could really relate to this film then. I think every refugee’s situation is different but there’s definitely a universal element of feeling stuck and well, in limbo that we can all relate to. I think the filmmaker and cast were able to really immerse us in their story. It’s poignant without being utterly doom and gloom.
I thought it beautifully filmed as well – but they put it out there as a comedy..and it was more heartbreaking to me rather than comedy..even dark comedy..I don’t know if i could characterize it like that. it threw me a little because of that..but on the whole..I enjoyed it and yes, being an immigrant as well, I think we might have related to it more than some might on that point! great review here tho.. 🙂
Hi Peggy! I suppose I don’t mind it as I appreciate filmmakers who can tell harrowing stories in a comedic way. I think this one is more of a dramedy as it’s more of a drama and the humor is more deadpan and ironic. I wasn’t aware you’re an immigrant, where did you emigrate from? I was born in Indonesia and came to the US for college when I was 18.
The Netherlands! 🙂 and while there was little hints of dark comedy here & there.. it was mostly a really hard story to watch.. for me at least. Speaking of dark comedy & so much more..have you seen Riders of Justice? right now my fav movie of 2021 – the trailer sadly does not give the right outlook into it..but it’s such a fantastic movie. Again, I liked this movie a lot.. I just didn’t get the ‘it’s a comedy’ billing of it. ha!
Ah lovely! I’ve only been to Amsterdam and it’s beautiful. Surely you know about Indonesia’s Colonial History, so a lot of my family members speak Dutch 🙂
No I haven’t seen Riders of Justice yet but I just blogged about that as it’s part of MSPIFF this year. I’m more excited to watch that now since you like it! Mads is always watchable!
I say this with all sincerity… The Indonesian/Dutch save the Netherlands from some pretty bland foot. ha! I’m not kidding. like the minute I had Nasi or Lumpia or so many other dishes..I was in heaven. I had many Indo/Dutch friends as a child, sadly not so many here, but luckily the Dutch/American store that we have here was bought buy some wonderful Indo/Dutch people (I hope that’s not offensive to say – as I’m just shortening it to type less) and they have made it worthwhile for me to travel the 25mi to the store again! 🙂 And yes, I think you will love the movie.. it’s so different than what the trailer gives.. as I was like hmmmm.. at first, but yes, Mads. 🙂
Ahah yeah I remember in Amsterdam there are so many Indo restaurants and of course my hubby + I (who’s also Indonesian) have to visit a few of them whilst we were there as there are ZERO Indo restaurant here in Minnesota or even in the upper midwest. You live in LA though right? There are tons of Indo restaurants/cafes there, Simpang Asia near Culver City is one of my faves https://www.yelp.com/biz/simpang-asia-los-angeles
Thanks for recommending Riders of Justice, just left a comment on your blog. I LOVE IT!
Yes! LA!! Oh I know Simpang.. I loved it at first – when they had the little store with it..I can walk there it’s like 3/4 of a mile at most from where I live..but the last few times I went I really didn’t like it. Like no more Lumpia.. how do you not have Lumpia?? I mean seriously.. hahahahaha so I’ve not gone in a while..they opened a couple of other places near it that were pretty decent. sadly..I can imagine there is ZERO Indo food in Minnesota ..I am a big Mexican food lover as well..so many good places for that.
What?? They stopped having Lumpia at Simpang Asia?? What a travesty 😀 Have you tried lemper, resoles or satay? They do have great food there, but then again I’ll take anything given we barely have any in my state, LOL. We do have a ton of Mexican places here in MN though.
yes.. I was so annoyed.. It just made no sense.. I’ve had lemper & satay but never heard of resoles.. hmmmm.. might have to try that. though I will look it up first so as to know it’s not like fish heads or something..hahahahahahhaa
Risoles is my all time fave Indonesian appetizer! https://www.tasteatlas.com/risoles You should absolutely try it!
I feel like this is a Jamaican patty that I always eat when either in Jamaica or go to a Jamaican restaurant. Just get it off the street vendors in Jamaica on the side of the road, so good!! Tho never had it sweet..which since I’m not a fan of sweet tamales, I probably am better with the meat or veggie.
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