Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

The opening scene of Limbo is wonderfully absurd. Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her partner, Boris (Kenneth Collard), are dancing to It Started With a Kiss, watched by a bemused group of young men. It’s all part of the refugees’ training on how they should comport themselves, if their bids for political asylum are successful. As the song heats up, so the dancing becomes ever more frenetic, ever more ridiculous.

In the front row of the audience sits the impassive Omar (Amir El-Masry), who has recently fled from Syria and is now living alongside three other asylum-seekers in a little house on a remote Scottish island. Omar carries an Oud with him everywhere he goes – a stringed instrument rather like a large mandolin. He is, we’re told, a gifted musician, but hasn’t attempted to play since arriving in Scotland.

He claims, the instrument doesn’t sound the same as it used to.

One of Omar’s housemates, Farhad (Vikash Bhai), keeps urging him to play again, even offering to be his agent/manager, to promote a concert in the local community hall. Farhad has recently left Afghanistan and longs to live and work in London. He wants to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Freddie Mercury, with whom he shares a moustache and a religion – if not any talent. The other two housemates are ‘brothers’ Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) and Abedi (Kwabena Ansah), who seem to be constantly arguing. Wasef wants to play football for Chelsea, while Abedi’s ambitions are much more realistic. He’ll be happy to find work as a cleaner.

All four men – and the other refugees they encounter at the community centre – are lost in a kind of limbo. Unable to work, unable to leave, they can only wander aimlessly around the bleak island locations, and occasionally – in scenes that feel like a homage to Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero – use the local phone box to make calls to their loved ones. Omar regularly talks to his parents, who now live in Istanbul. They always mention Omar’s brother Nabil, the ‘hero’ who stayed in Syria to defend his homeland. They ask Omar for money, but he has none to send them, and they repeatedly ask him if he’s playing his Oud…

Director Ben Sharrock has created a mesmerising, slow burn of a story, the bleakness cleverly undercut by moments of humour and genuine poignancy. When Omar is approached by four joy-riding teenagers, I fear the worst, especially when they ask him if he’s a terrorist. But the result is curiously heartwarming – Limbo is a constant surprise, confident enough to take its own sweet time unfolding its story.

Again and again, the camera leaves the action to gaze wistfully along a seemingly endless road leading into the distance, an ambiguous image: does it offer the possibility of escape, or is it just a highway to nowhere?

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney


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