Frank Zappa famously said “there is no Hell, there is only France.” If that’s true, there’s a strong case to be made that a bleak island off the Scottish coast may well be the perfect place to host purgatory. In Limbo, Ben Sharrokck’s dramedy about life as an asylum seeker, we get to spend time in this state between the horror of what’s been left behind and the interminable wait for what’s yet to come.
This touching and provocative film (meant to play at Cannes 2020, and shifted to a TIFF premiere due to COVID-19) stars Amir El-Masry as Omar. Carrying an instrument case like a man schlepping his own coffin, he waits along with several other roommates for a chance to leave this waystation and make it into the metropolis of London. He’s left his parents behind in Turkey and a brother who stayed back in Syria to continue the fight. He’s wracked by survivor’s guilt about what he’s abandoned, as well as performance anxiety about the instrument that is around him like a stone.
As the film constantly reminds us, a musician that does not play their instrument is dead. That may be poetic hyperbole, but it’s hard to see the music-less Omar as fully living as he sits in this windswept neverland.
The film deftly balances this dour situation with moments of dark and delicious humour. The surrealism of these migrants from all over the world bonding over bootleg copies of Friends episodes, and arguing over the moral obligations of Rachel and Chandler, is but one spark of many, highlighting the absurdism of global culture and the fiction of the divides between peoples.
Flatmate Farhad (beautifully played by Vikash Bhai) claims a Zoroastrian connection to Freddie Murcury, sharing the same mustache and sense of grandeur and possibility. His unabashed enthusiasm contrasts with Omar’s ennui, pushing the latter to confront his own situation and move forward.
The film does an exceptional job of weaving these shifts of tone and story, rarely feeling unsteady as it shifts between gentle comedy and stark reckoning of the grim situation that these men left behind and the pain of waiting for what’s ahead. A fantastic scene in a spartan grocery store embodies the complexities of multicultural integration, where the very notion of what counts as local is interrogated.
Towards the end, the film gets a bit more poetic with mixed results – as it drops some of its humour in favour of melodrama, it slightly loses its way. Still, much of this is earned, and it’s hard to see how the film could more fitfully convey that ongoing sense of abandonment that these men feel. It’s pointed out early on that they’re the forgotten and least likely to achieve asylum – the women and children taken first, of course, and these military-aged men left to wait until all other considerations have been made. It conjures thoughts that maybe time would have been spent better sacrificing to make their homes better before leaving for safety, an impossible and mind-wracking position to be put in for those who legitimately crave nothing less than freedom and security.
Limbo works best when we feel invited into this strange land, experiencing through fresh eyes the surreal trappings of our privileged ways. The locals on the Hebrides are the stereotypical yokels, yet their balance between rote racism and general sense of inviting in these new inhabitants speaks to both the tension and eventual solution to this middle-ground problem.
When the final musical notes are played, we’re treated by Sharock’s film to a deeply empathetic, surprisingly funny and emotionally rich tale of those that too often get thought of as mere statistics or bureaucratic blips in a sea of global migration. The film forces us to look at this one group, and in doing so takes audiences outside their own comfort zone, making us both understand and feel for these men as individuals. It’s this wonderful invitation for empathy, coaxed through comedy and tragedy alike, that makes Limbo an extraordinary and memorable place to visit.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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September 24, 2020