Most of the films we’ve seen about the migrant and refugee situation in Europe in recent years are gritty, often heartbreaking dramas and documentaries. “Limbo,” written and directed by a ferociously talented filmmaker, Ben Sharrock, takes an insinuating, poetic and often wryly funny approach. And it’s both heartbreaking and heartlifting.
Amir El-Masry plays Omar, a young Syrian man seeking asylum in Britain. He and a group of other male refugees have been deposited on a remote Scottish island while their applications are processed. How remote? A scene early in the movie shows Omar in a phone booth, speaking to his mother, as a couple of other men wait for him to complete his conversation. They all own cellphones, but there are no bars. (The movie was shot in the Outer Hebrides.)
There are, however, “Cultural Awareness” classes, taught by two comically stilted instructors who mime close dancing (to a Hot Chocolate song) to demonstrate social dos and don’ts when interacting with the women of Europe.
Omar’s estrangement is multileveled. In his homeland he was a celebrated musician, a player of the oud, a type of lute. So was his father, who is now in Istanbul with Omar’s mother, and playing in the street for change. Omar hasn’t touched his instrument because he’s had one hand in a cast since leaving his homeland. When the cast comes off, he tunes his oud, and worries that it doesn’t sound right.
It’s not as if he doesn’t have boosters. One of his housemates, Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a fellow with two fanatical interests, those being chickens and Freddie Mercury, offers to be his manager, and endeavors to put book him “an evening of Syrian music.”
“They put us out here in the middle of nowhere to try and break us,” one of Omar’s comrades complains. But there are other factors straining Omar. His brother stayed behind in Syria, to fight in its civil war. His parents pull him one way and another in their conversations. Omar takes long, aimless walks, carrying the oud he won’t play. The flat green fields and the big open sky frame his figure (the film is mostly presented in a boxy aspect ratio) to make his isolation seem constant.
If you’ve spent any time in the Scottish isles, you know they’re places where time seems to stand still. The setting here constructs a powerful metaphor for the protagonist’s plight. With a pleasing bit of cinematic sleight-of-hand, the movie grows more expansive once Omar determines to expand his horizon.
Rated R for language. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.