Despite a gently funny opening in which a classroom of some 20-odd immigrants are schooled in matters of assimilation, including an anachronistic lesson on inappropriate physical contact during ballroom dancing (courtesy of the wry actors Kenneth Collard and Sidse Babett Knudsen), every other joke, if that’s even the right word, is tinged with sorrow. One minute, one of the refugees is cracking wise about the weak cellphone signal on the island: It was better, he quips, “in the middle of the Mediterranean.” And the next moment, an English lesson on the proper use of the imperfect tense includes such examples as “I used to have a beautiful house — before it was blown up by coalition forces.”
As the film’s protagonist Omar, Amir El-Masry has the perfect deadpan face to match the film’s tone. One running bit involves a theory, espoused by Omar’s Afghan friend and fellow asylum seeker Farhad (Vikash Bhai), that the eyes are the window to the soul. Farhad keeps covering his mouth and asking Omar to guess whether he’s smiling or not. Except you never can really tell: Happy or not, Farhad’s eyes reflect the horrors he’s running away from, even when he’s grinning from ear to ear. In his case, it’s not war that drove him from his home, but a pain more private and deeply personal.
There are lots of reasons to become a refugee, “Limbo” suggests. One asylum seeker scoffs, matter-of-factly, at a group of what he dismisses as “economic migrants,” who are being rounded up by police, as if they were on a lower rung of the refugee pecking order. (Speaking of pecking, Farhad adopts a stolen chicken as a pet, which he names Freddie after Queen’s Freddie Mercury, his hero. It’s somewhat silly, and sounds an off note in what is otherwise a deft mix of pathos and absurdity, one that Sharrock balances with the skill of a virtuoso.)
The plot of “Limbo” is straightforward: Omar, a gifted musician, carries his oud — a guitarlike stringed instrument adorned with designs that depict the garden of his house back in Syria — around with him in a case everywhere he goes, like it’s a coffin for his soul, as Farhad puts it. At the start of the film, a cast on Omar’s hand prevents him from playing. But even after the cast has been removed, and an open-mic night at the local community center beckons, Omar seems too broken, spiritually, to play. The film is interspersed with homesick phone calls from Omar to his mother about this and that: the recipe for a favorite family dish, and Omar’s brother, who has stayed behind to fight in the war.
This is not a typical tale of the immigrant experience. A Sikh store clerk (Sanjeev Kohli), who presides over the shelves of the town’s only grocery — where Omar goes looking for sumac, only to find little besides ketchup and mustard — has been in the country long enough to have a lovely Scottish burr, but there’s a long list of banned ethnic slurs taped to the wall, all of which, it is implied, he has heard before. No one finds love and happiness here (or not quite, anyway).
But there is a sense of a beginning in this story, a sense of possibility that acknowledges that one can continue to carry one’s past, without it becoming a coffin. If you tend it right, it can become the soil from which something beautiful, and entirely new, springs.
R. At area theaters. Contains strong language and some mature thematic elements. 104 minutes.