In the lead is Omar, played by a terrific, misty-tempered Amir El-Masry who wears the kind of melancholy Sharrock is after on his sleeve like a second skin. A gifted musician back in Syria virtuosic with the strings of an oud, Omar spends his days in an in-between state just like the rest of the refugees stationed at the weird, cut-off seaside outpost. Despite being unable to play it due to a combination of fear and a mysterious hand injury, the young man carries his grandfather’s oud around dutifully like an extension of his body. With his family scattered to different locations—his parents are in Istanbul and his brother, still back in Syria to be a part of the resistance—Omar often gazes into empty space with a tint of nostalgia and hangs out with his similarly placeless companions, when he doesn’t visit the town’s sole phone booth to call his family. Throughout “Limbo,” Sharrock disperses Omar’s moving conversations with his mom like cadences of a musical arrangement. On one day, we hear him get the recipe of his favorite native dish featuring spices like sumac, near-impossible to obtain on the island. And on another, mutual worries about the future of their family take over the long-distance chat.
Through various sweetly observant scenes, Sharrock constructs a complex portrayal of Omar that both rises him above his austere circumstance, and blends him into it with distinctive care. In that regard, Andy Drummond’s attentive production design and Nick Cooke’s shrewd cinematography accentuate the barrenness of Omar’s surroundings, like the barely furnished temporary apartment he shares with his Freddy Mercury fan roommate Farhad (a gentle and amiable Vikash Bhai), the hardly stocked grocery shop he patronizes, the bleak landscape that envelops it all … In unison, these elements serve as constant reminders of emptiness that advance the severity of Omar’s emotional estrangement.
Sharrock’s greatest feat here is using all these absurdist touches towards achieving a sensitive, reflective sort of humor—think of something in the vein of “The Band’s Visit,” but directed by Yorgos Lanthimos—without making Omar and his mates the butt of the joke. Instead, Sharrock insists that the joke’s on the locals of “Limbo,” oblivious to their own privileges; particularly two cultural integration teachers, Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Boris (Kenneth Collard), tasked to educate a couple of dozen young men like Omar on Western societal etiquette. In one session (which serves as the film’s hilarious opening), they demonstrate sexual boundaries by a ridiculous scenario set on an imaginary dance floor. In another, they illustrate proper ways of interviewing for a job over the phone. While the men play along, sometimes with jaw-dropping earnestness, you can’t help but hear their inner voices that mock the clueless but well-meaning Helga and Boris deep down.