A Syrian musician, carrying an oud, waits on a blizzardy Scottish island for a ruling on his request for asylum in “Limbo,” opening Friday in theaters. Humane, warm, amusingly quirky filmmaking by Ben Sharrock, enhanced by a quietly riveting lead performance, allows this unusual refugee story to overcome tonal incongruities.
Sharrock (“Pikadero”), a Scottish writer-director who has cited the wry tragicomedies of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman as an influence, has created a story with elements of “Waiting for Godot” and Aki Kaurismaki’s “The Other Side of Hope,” set on a fictional Scottish island.
Here, under gray skies that cinematographer Nick Cooke makes appear purgatorial, newly arrived refugees, all male, wait for the British government to decide whether to approve their applications for asylum. In sequences presented as absurdist comedy, the men attend workshops designed to ease them into British life. In one, two government officials demonstrate how to interact appropriately with a woman on the dance floor.
Sharrock follows several refugees, most prominently young Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry). Omar carries his grandfather’s oud with him, yet can’t bring himself to play the stringed instrument, whose sound now feels strange to him.
We also meet two feuding Nigerian brothers (Kwabena Ansah, Ola Orebiyi) and the optimistic mustached Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a Freddie Mercury fan who has escaped from Afghanistan.
The slim plot centers on Omar’s personal journey, with the young man’s backstory revealed largely through phone conversations with family members. Omar’s parents have relocated from Syria to Turkey, while Omar’s brother has chosen to remain in Syria to fight Assad — a decision that the disapproving Omar views as a ticket to martyrdom. At the same time, Omar feels guilty about having chosen the self-preservation route.
After shining comically, the film becomes more serious and dramatic, in scenes featuring Omar’s emotional crisis caused by estrangement from family, country and culture.
This material is more predictable and less original that what has preceded it, and tonally it doesn’t quite jell. Long takes in which Omar stares forlornly into space don’t deliver the require impact.
But Sharrock provides plenty to embrace in this movie, which comes together as a moving look at refugees, dislocation, friendships formed in surreal settings, and humans need to feel they belong.
The quirky humor — at one point, Omar explains to his mother, amid mutual concerns about their war-torn homeland, how to distinguish Stallone from Schwarzenegger — makes the movie consistently entertaining.
By presenting the refugee situation through a Scottish lens, Sharrock provides a distinctive take on a subject currently addressed often in European cinema.
British-Egyptian actor El-Masry, whose big-screen credits include Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” and a “Star Wars” movie, is a captivating anchor presence. The wealth of feeling he understatedly expresses on what, at first glance, appears to be a poker face — which seems born for Sharrock’s deadpan motionless-camera shots — enables Omar to fascinate and move us.
Omar’s scenes with Bhai’s cheerier Farhad, along with the latter’s chicken, Freddie Jr., are sufficiently funny to warrant giving these guys their own sitcom.
Starring: Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Kwabena Ansah, Ola Orebiyi
Written and directed by: Ben Sharrock
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Consisting of droll vignettes in which tying a shoe can constitute the primary action, the films of Roy Andersson aren’t for everyone. But the human-condition tragicomedies of this inimitable Swedish director can be deadpan delights. Not quite of that caliber but far from unworthy is Andersson’s latest: the wryly titled 78-minute “About Endlessness,” opening in theaters and streaming starting on Friday.
As in previous Andersson fare, the mundane coexists with the monumental in the humorously pessimistic, meticulously designed, artifice-filled tableaux, in which a wine-spilling waiter seems as significant as Hitler.
The primary theme involves humankind’s life-goes-on aspects. Narration, by an omniscient-sounding woman, who says things like “I saw a man with his mind elsewhere,” accompanies most scenes.
Andersson begins with a vista of bomb-wrecked Cologne, over which two entwined lovers, who appear to have floated out of a Marc Chagall painting, fly.
Then down to earth we go. An older couple sit on a bench. “It’s September already,” the woman says.
Recurring characters include a priest who has lost his faith and has crucifixion nightmares. In scenes exemplifying Andersson’s dry humor, he visits an unsupportive psychotherapist.
Other vignettes feature teenage girls erupting into dance, a man resentful of a former classmate’s success, a man tying his daughter’s shoes in the rain, and dark historical elements. The latter include the Fuhrer in his bunker and a seemingly endless march of soldiers to Siberian prison camps.
The film is less profound than Andersson’s “Living” trilogy, which includes “You, the Living.”
But Anderson still covers the gamut of human experience, from love to war to the dentist’s chair to the “fantastic” sight of falling snow, and captures the inalterable highs, lows, and in-betweens of human nature, for which no wiser, kinder variant will ever exist, in ways distinctively on-target and amusing.
Starring: Martin Serner, Jan Eje Ferling, Bengt Bergius, Thore Flygel
Written and directed by: Roy Andersson
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes