TIFF 2020 Review: ‘Limbo’ Paints a Vivid Picture of Life as a Syrian Refugee

There’s only so much uncertainty a person can bear before they start to go numb from it all. How can you allow yourself to feel anything when your entire life is held in a kind of stasis? Limbo, directed by Ben Sharrock, is a story of exactly that internal conflict as experienced by a Syrian refugee. It’s billed as the sort of eccentric, light-hearted dramedy that has dominated the indie market in the United Kingdom for the past few decades, but in some ways that feels misleading. Limbo is quirky, to be sure, and rarely ventures into truly depressing territory, but there’s such a strong undercurrent of pain, trauma, and grief that give it a somewhat darker tone than one might expect.

Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a Syrian refugee who has taken up residence in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, but it’s more of a waystation than a home. Without official asylum status, he can’t get a job, and without a job, he can’t build a life for himself in the UK. So he waits. He’s been separated from his family, with his parents having left Syria for Turkey, and his older brother remaining behind to fight in the Syrian Civil War. All he has of his past life is the treasured oud passed down from his grandfather, an instrument that he can’t even play, because of an injury to his hand that has left him in a cast.

But he can’t exactly focus on the future, either. He and his fellow refugees (one from Afghanistan, and two from central Africa) have begun to regard their humble accommodations as a sort of purgatory. They’re unable to work, and the meager cultural education programs offered by kindly and well-intentioned but woefully undertrained locals provide little stimulation. Omar hopes to one day travel to London and save up enough money to bring the rest of his family over. But how much can you really plan, when it could be months or years before the government has allowed you the dignity of official residency? His friend Wasif glumly declares that they’re all past their “best used by” date, the point at which popular support for their asylum requests begins to decline and that the government means to keep them there indefinitely until they give up and return home. What kind of future is that?

So it’s the present, then, that Omar has to occupy his mind. That involves many long, listless walks around the island, which give the illusion of movement but are more akin to marching in place. The temptation to cling to the past is maddening: Omar is stricken with guilt over leaving Syria, fear for his brother’s life, and worry about his parents’ safety in Turkey. He’s utterly paralyzed with forced inaction. But despite all of this, he still pushes forward and holds out hope that things will change.

El-Masry has a difficult task as Omar. The character is so muted that the challenge here is making enough of his personality shine through even in the midst of everything that his growing apathy doesn’t make him inaccessible to audiences. But El-Masry makes the most of small moments that show who Omar is as a person: a warm, empathetic, dignified man who is coping with tremendous loss, not only of his family and home but of everything his life was supposed to be. He is supported by Vikash Bhai as Farhad, a Freddie Mercury-loving Afghan whose giant heart and relentless optimism balances out Omar’s occasional aloofness. Together, they create an utterly endearing duo who one can’t help but root for.

Limbo is a quiet film, perhaps even unassuming. It chooses its moments of absurdist humor, largely revolving around the bewildered populace of this small, isolated island who are simultaneously threatened by and welcoming of their new foreign neighbors. But underneath the surface, there’s a nearly endless amount of complicated emotions fighting one another for prominence. Hope, regret, grief, relief, worry, fear, and, every once in awhile, joy. And ultimately, what ends up being Omar’s saving grace is learning to reconcile all the different parts of his life: past, present, and future. He will learn how to replicate his mother’s favorite recipe, mostly. He will play the oud again, even if it doesn’t sound exactly the way it used to. And he will have a life, albeit different from the one he had originally imagined.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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