Review: Aptly Titled Limbo Follows a Syrian Refugee Eager to Find Home and Begin Life Again

In Limbo, Omar (Amir El-Masry) is an oud player (it’s a stringed instrument; look it up) born in Syria and currently living on a remote Scottish island where he waits patiently to find out whether the British government will grant him asylum. He hasn’t played the instrument since leaving Syria, although by all accounts he is quite a gifted player. This is made all the more strange since he carries the oud with him everywhere he goes, as if he’s ready to play it at a moment’s notice.

Image Courtesy of Focus Features

Writer/director Ben Sharrock (Pikadero) tells this unique story of refugees living in what feels like the middle of nowhere, all of them reflecting on what it means to be people with nowhere to call home. Omar calls home frequently to talk to his parents, who who want him to come back; an issue with his more heroic brother keeps him from considering this but also keeps him from evolving fully as a person in this new land.

Also staying in the temporary home with Omar is the Freddie Mercury-obsessed Farhad (Vikash Bhai), whose love of Queen goes beyond the idea that a man with Middle Eastern heritage made it big in the UK and the world. The two watch episodes of “Friends” together and attempt to find connections between the empty lives they’re both living and the privileged life portrayed on the sitcom. A pair of constantly bickering West Africa brothers, Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), round out the house.

Shot in the square 4:3 format by cinematographer Nick Cooke, Limbo feels as claustrophobic and confined as its subjects do, and director Sharrock attempts to find ways to dissect the unique situation these men are in. The locals offer a mixed bag of responses to them being there. Some want to embrace them and make them part of the community, while others are a little less certain. Still, even the ones asking jokingly if Omar is a terrorist when they first meet him end up asking him out for drinks before that first conversation is over.

Limbo is a reflective, lyrical, gentle piece about being caught in a place until your real life is allowed to continue. The conversations between Omar and Farhad may go down as some of my favorite exchanges of the year, and it’s no coincidence that they represent some of the only substantive conversations in the film. They discuss their dreams, hopes and goals for a new life, even as each passing day leaves them less sure any of those ambitions will come to fruition. But as we observe Omar in his perpetual condition of waiting, we at least hope he overcomes the hangups in his life that are keeping from playing that oud once again. We come to believe if he can do that, it will be the necessary first step in feeling at home wherever he lands.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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