“A musician who doesn’t play music is dead,” and so Omar (Amir El-Masry) drags his oud around like a “coffin for his soul.” “Limbo,” a deadpan comedy that starts off funny and intentionally wilts, sort of sits around and reserves itself. All the while, you also sit around and wait for purpose to make itself apparent, and with time it does — but the point of this movie is the waiting.
The waiting is that of Omar, a Syrian refugee sent to a (fictional) Scottish town to await his asylum results. He’s not allowed to do any work, but the job he and his roommates, also refugees, assign themselves is to outlast the Man that put them in this corner of the world. The days are as bleak as the gray skies that overshadow much of this movie, sometimes spent watching “Friends” on DVD inside the barely adorned home Omar shares with three other refugees, at other times calling his mother and father from the town’s solitary payphone, but most often out and about, walking around with the burden of the oud he brought with him.
By bringing the oud with him, Omar, a musician, carries the guilt of leaving his country behind, which El-Masry navigates with poise. Director Ben Sharrock takes his time building the weight of the oud, and we first meet Omar in Cultural Awareness 101. The subject is “Sex: Is a Smile An Invitation?” and the bit, a lesson on appropriate behavior, is riotous, but it’s also one of the first clues this is a movie unsure of its footing.
As things go on, Sharrock delivers comedy and drama alike in one word paragraphs. At the beginning “Limbo” exists to be “humorous,” then turns to “loneliness” and “fear” and “anger.” Soon, everything dissipates, and “Limbo” is a solitary sadness — a gloom rolls in as Sharrock flings us from bitter overcast into gusty darkness.
With the night and the wind — angry flurries have a way of cropping up every so often — “Limbo” dunks Omar into the gutter. The proverbial gutter is everything this film is about: Omar and the other refugees have been shunted into this gutter that’s beautiful — but still a gutter. That beauty, the Scottish landscape, begins to taunt the refugees, a natural gift that they, temporary residents, can touch but not keep. Fall turns to a harsh and unforgiving winter, and Sharrock makes a transition from pity to all-out nihilism; what was once foreboding to just Omar and the refugees suddenly dwarfs every soul who passes through.
One of those souls is the mailman who drives a little red van and blasts opera. He makes his way through every house on the block except Omar’s, starting and stopping as the opera cuts in and out with the van’s engine — and the camera is there to catch it all from a distance, in one take, it leaves Omar unmoving, sidelined. Despite Sharrock’s earlier point about futility, he latches onto disparity. Just when we’re getting into the flow of Omar’s life, Sharrock makes subtle and sublime asides about the lives Omar can’t reach.
Yet it’s only until later that the film decides to pick a lane: demoralizing. As “Limbo” goes on, the people around Omar fade until it’s just him and roommate Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a man who unites his affinities for Freddie Mercury and chickens by stealing a chicken and naming it Freddie.
Sorrow and homesickness close in on Omar, and the purpose of “Limbo” becomes clear. Omar is stuck in bureaucratic limbo, stranded in a battle between the parts of himself that regret emigrating and those that believe in hope. Though Sharrock took his time to stack up his witty film, he articulates it well — and then tacks on an ending far too convenient and neat for everything else he painted.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].