Rarely has purgatory been as gorgeous as it is in Ben Sharrock’s second feature Limbo. The bleak beauty of North Uist is a metaphorically chilly welcome for Omar (Amir El-Masry), a talented musician from Syria who is stuck on the island by the authorities while awaiting the status of his asylum application. With little but the flimsy coat on his back and the bulky case of his grandfather’s oud, he’s adrift in an alien landscape amidst baffled locals used to their own kind of isolation.
Perhaps the finest film to discuss the refugee experience since His House, Limbo couldn’t be further removed from Remi Weekes’ chilling haunted house tale in its approach, but matches it in the empathy it holds for its protagonists. Both films excel at depicting authorities who treat ‘refugee’ almost as its own ethnicity, and are clueless when it comes to the individual needs of the various nationalities and ethnic groups within. Alike only in their desperate situation, Omar finds himself in a shared farmhouse with optimistic Afghan Farhad (Vikash Bhai), and quarrelling Nigerian brothers Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi).
Farhad in particular is a constant source of delightful amusement, with his bristly moustache grown in imitation of his hero Freddie Mercury, and his almost sociopathic sunniness, intact despite waiting around 18 months for the decision on his asylum application. Elsewhere, incongruous comedy abounds through the literally odd couple Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), who run cultural awareness courses that are crushingly lacking in self-awareness; and a Pakistani-Glaswegian shop owner (Sanjeev Kohli) whose range of spices extends as far as ketchup and mustard, and his list of banned racial slurs pinned to the wall.
In terms of style, Limbo plays like the films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Aki Kaurismäki in that comedy and tragedy dance together behind a deadpan mask. In fact, one of the few weaknesses of Sharrock’s film is just how easily the absurdist Greek and the drolly melancholy Finn spring to mind. The Scot does however adapt their style very well; with the sense of emotional dislocation mirroring the physical. Limbo‘s also draws the occasional homage from closer to home, like to the great Scottish director Bill Forsyth. The repeated use of a lone phone box operating as the sole link home for a cultural fish out of water is a lovely nod to Local Hero.
Through it all El-Masry greets his situation with a practiced blankness, as if indulging in any hint of joy of despair will tip his tottering equilibrium past the point of no return. This extends to his relationships with the oud, the great symbolic link with both his culture and his family. He lugs it around constantly not being able to play due to a damaged hand. Later, he brings it out to tune it, but can’t bring himself to play. It’s perhaps a self-imposed exile beyond that which has brought him to this remote island, a punishment on himself for not staying to fight in Syria, as his brother has. It is a great example of the way Sharrock has balanced the tone of the film so that it can lean towards comedy, pathos, and occasionally tragedy, fluidly and with it feeling natural within the very specific and slightly heightened environment he has created.
Funny but never flippant, and sweet but never saccharine, Limbo is an exquisitely judged comedy drama about a topic that tends to be no laughing matter. Sharrock directs with grace and patience, the film’s pace portraying the sense of an indeterminate period stretching out before its protagonists. It puts the audience in the mindset to spot the tiniest detail, to pick up on the smallest morsel of mirth. That it does all this and remains a sensitive and respectful examination of its vital subject is something wondrous.
Screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival