Thu. Oct 22nd, 2020

TIFF Review: Darkly comic refugee story ‘Limbo’ is a haunting high wire act that pays off

Plot: A Syrian refugee ends up in a remote area in Scotland. Waiting for his asylum request to be approved, he is transferred to a refugee center where he spends his days waiting and contemplating on his life back home.


It is not an overstatement to say that Ben Sharrock’s LIMBO is one of the best films ever made about the refugee experience. Incredibly moving, heart wrenching and sincere, this is one of the best films at TIFF this year and a must-see film that speaks volumes even as it chooses to have most of its scenes devoid of dialogue.

Creating a dark comedy about the refugee crisis is no easy task. It is an uphill battle for any filmmaker tackling such a sensitive topic and when a tragicomic approach is applied when addressing themes of displacement, any film can risk losing its focus and alienating audiences. But Sharrock masterfully controls the film’s tone, in a style reminiscent of Wes Anderson, particularly in shot composition and sparse dialogue. And the result is truly glorious, a film that is so poetic that it penetrates the soul. 

Omar (a fantastic Amir El Masry) is a promising young musician from Syria. Separated from his Syrian family, he is stuck on a remote Scottish island awaiting the fate of his asylum request. His brother chose to stay back in Syria to fight, but Omar chose life instead of war – even if it means he would perhaps never see his family again. When he arrives in Scotland and is admitted to a refugee center, he finds himself unable to play the Oud, a traditional guitar-like oruental musical instrument. His roommates are three other refugees who each hold painful stories, told with dry humor that never feels exploitative. 

Much of LIMBO’s beauty lies in its atmosphere. Sharrock fills the film with gorgeously filmed shots of the Scottish countryside that can be as menacing as much as they’re beautiful to look at. In choosing to get rid of needless dialogue, the film embodies the idea of waiting: waiting for a paper that can decide a refugee’s fate, waiting for a phone call from family members continents away, waiting for time to heal incredibly painful wounds that seem impossible to get over, waiting for an opportunity to rebuild oneself, waiting for belonging and acceptance in a foreign land. 

Nick Cooke’s incredible cinematography does an incredible job showcasing what it’s like to be in a constant state of limbo – most of the film’s shots deliberately feature empty farms, ports, roads and houses, as if the character’s intrinsic feelings of displacement and lack of belonging are reflected in what they see around them. There are no warm colors or even crowded shots. A phone booth lies in the middle of nowhere, connecting characters to worlds far away yet so close to each of their hearts. When the phone rings, it’s as though life rushes through their veins, even if for a few minutes before the brutal cut-off. 

Verdict: One of the best films at TIFF, LIMBO is a film that needs to be felt, and not just followed. Successful on both narrative and experiential levels, it embodies emotions that no words can describe. It will make you smile and will make your heart ache all at the same time. A haunting picture that deserves to be widely seen and celebrated for what it achieves – a high-wire act that incredibly pays off. 

Grade: A

This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival.

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