It gets tiring to see so many movies starring people of color in narrative features linked to their identity when most of them are exploitative for the sake of cheap sympathy. Against this dystopian commodification of generations of emotional turmoil comes Limbo, which feels like a breath of fresh air in how it explores its characters as fully-formed, multifaceted people— a luxury not often afforded to people of color in those Oscar-bait films. It’s a total oddity.
Funny but never hilarious, moving but never melodramatic, quaint but never
cliché, Limbo is a humanistic film in that it manages to capture the contradictions that define what it means to be human. Despite a BAFTA nomination, Limbo has managed to sneak under the radar as a charming gem of a movie filled with genuine pathos. It feels like what so many of the films this year have tried to be; it’s certainly the movie with the best and most effective usage of the 4:3 aspect ratio to come out this year, and its landscape shots put those in other films to shame. The story of Syrian musician and refugee Omar (Amir El-Masery) is a film that almost effortlessly captures the anxiety of waiting on an update from the government on one’s pending asylum registration as well as the humor that people rely on to get themselves through the despair of the titular limbo.
Stoic now, an old recording Omar repeatedly watches on his phone of his life
before he left clues us in to the warm personality that lies under the hardened exterior he’s developed in order to simply survive; the bulk of the comedy comes from his roommate Farhad (Vikash Bhai), an Afghan refugee who loves Western pop culture and is obsessed with Freddie Mercury to the point that he sports the same facial hair popularized by the Queen frontman. Bhai and El-Masery’s performances— which often revolve around the latter playing the straight man to the former— are funny, yes, but also show the toll of waiting in complete darkness as strangers make a decision about the value of your life, which is made painfully clear in more tense scenes between the two. Their performances and chemistry, which you can catch them discussing in an interview with PB, are easily the highlight of the film. As mentioned above, cinematographer Nick Cooke works some magic with the camera, too. The first movie to be shot on the Scottish Uist, Cooke renders the landscape in muted colors and precise pans that create an absolutely gorgeous viewing experience. You will look on in awe even as you are reminded of the cold, hostile, and isolating nature of this foreign environment (it also helps that the Uist experiences both harsh winds and blizzards throughout the film).
Unique as it is, the film does suffer from some of the more dramatic moments in
the back half falling flat; however, it does stick the landing on the two moments that it absolutely needed to land in order to work. Additionally, the dialogue does end up a little muddy in the sound mix, no doubt due to the Uist gales. It’s nothing that watching with subtitles won’t remedy, but even without them it’s certainly intelligible— this isn’t a Tenet situation.
Ultimately, even if not a masterpiece, this film is extremely easy to recommend
and offers a poignant look at how systems and bureaucracy often forget the very real people whose lives they determine the fate of with a few stamps and letters, and the anguish of waiting on an update that seems like it won’t ever come. Do yourself a favor and watch Limbo when it releases on April 30th.