Omar remembers the apricot tree.
As a child growing up in Damascus, he’d watch the flowers bloom and the fruit grow. His mother would pick the apricots and make amardeen (a kind of fruit leather) from them.
There’s a saying in Arabic, he tells a friend: Tomorrow there will be apricots. It’s supposed to be a phrase for something that’ll likely never happen—like when pigs fly, perhaps. But for him, the meaning was lost. “I never got the saying because we always had apricots,” he says.
Now, though, he understands.
Omar is stuck on an island in Scotland—a refugee from war-torn Syria, a stranger in a strange land. Apricots? Yeah, right. Out here, you’d be lucky to see apricots in the grocery store. Any apricot trees that’d dare set roots down on this cold, windswept island would freeze solid by October, maybe earlier. The apricots themselves would never stand a chance. And Omar’s beginning to wonder whether he does, either.
The island is filled with refugees trying to start life over. But the process to apply for asylum is weird and slow, and some of Omar’s fellows have been waiting for years for that opportunity. Some cynically believe that Britain’s trying to cull their numbers by making them give up: Forget it, just send me back. And some are indeed sent back. But those who remain dutifully take cultural acclimation classes and try to fit in, as much as they can, with the locals.
“I got my eye on you!” a Scottish youth hollers at Omar. “Don’t blow up, [bleep] or rape anyone, all right?”
Omar has no intention of blowing anything up. He’s a musician, albeit one with a broken hand. All he wants to do is get his cast removed, play his oud (a guitar-like instrument) and, hopefully, find a way to support his parents—now living in near poverty in Istanbul.
But for now, he waits with his housemates: African brothers Farhad and Wasef, and chicken-loving Afghani Farhad, who announces that he’ll be Omar’s manager.
They watch old Friends episodes on DVD. They sometimes walk a few miles to the nearest phone booth to make calls back home. They take their classes and wait. And then wait some more.
Tomorrow there will be apricots.
But apricots don’t grow in Scotland. And tomorrow never comes.
In the stark, often unfeeling environment that we see in Limbo, little acts of kindness stand out. When Omar tries to peel an orange with just one good hand, Farhad takes the fruit and does it for him. A grocery store owner procures a rare spice for him, too (at least rare for this corner of Scotland). People encourage him to put on a concert of his music once he’s better. And a well-meaning local—one of the same people who harassed Omar earlier in the movie—offers him a ride and tries to make sure he’s doing OK.
Omar reciprocates when he can, even if it’s sometimes a bit grudgingly. He goes out in a terrific storm to try to locate some lost sheep. He encourages Farhad in his own endeavors. And he clearly cares deeply for his parents, whom he talks to regularly on the phone. His brother, Nabil, is a more complex influence in Omar’s life, but it becomes clear that the two still care a great deal for one another.
We learn that, in the past, Wasef saved Abedi’s life.
Omar is Muslim, as are the owner of the island’s sparse grocery store and Wasef, one of Omar’s housemates. (We see Wasef holding Islamic prayer beads.) Farhad announces that he’s Zoroastrian—like his idol, Freddy Mercury. We hear some discussion on Islamic fashion, and someone is buried following, it would seem, Islamic tradition.
The name of the movie, of course, refers to a different spiritual tradition: In Catholic teaching, Limbo is where those who never had a chance to hear the gospel spend their afterlives. It’s a fitting name for the film: Just as inhabitants of limbo are in neither heaven or hell, so our immigrants are trapped between two worlds.
Someone says, “It’s a good thing God has made dreaming for free.” It’s said that the northern lights could be the visiting spirits of loved ones.
The movie opens in a classroom, where two teachers are trying to show a class full of immigrants the difference between consensual and non-consensual contact. The man does go a bit too far in this role-playing exercise. (One moment, he rests his head on the woman’s breast. In another, he wraps his arms below the woman’s waist—around her buttocks, actually—and picks her up, as if to carry her off.)
Omar and Farhad talk about the difficulty of getting to know women in Farhad’s native Afghanistan, given that they’re typically covered from head-to-toe in black fabric. “But you can tell everything from the eyes,” Farhad insists. “Happy, sad, everything.” (He tries to demonstrate, but the results are rather unconvincing.)
Omar and his brother Nabil commisserate over how one of their aunts used to smother them with kisses when they were younger. Someone’s delusional dreams are compared to those of a “castrated goat” wanting to start a family. Someone argues that his girlfriend didn’t break up with him. Rather, she apparently said that they should take a break. “Very different from a break up,” he insists.
[Spoiler Warning] At one point, Omar asks Farhad if he’d go back to Afghanistan if he could. “I cannot be myself back home,” Farhad finally says after some prodding. What that means, exactly, is never explicitly stated. But the movie seems to suggest that Farhad is gay. Later, Omar admits that he’s never met “anyone like” Farhad, and Farhad says, “Neither have I,” apparently excited for the opportunity once his request for asylum is approved.
Actual onscreen violence is exceptionally sparse in Limbo. We do see a woman slap a man across the face, and one or two people push each other, but that’s about it. But violence and death nevertheless hover about the movie’s periphery.
Omar’s brother, Nabil, is a soldier fighting in the Syrian civil war. And we sense plenty of tension over Nabil’s decision to fight and Omar’s decision to leave. As a promising musician, Omar was encouraged by his parents to emigrate to Britain. They hope that perhaps, through his gifts, he might preserve a musical aspect of Syrian life. But as the film wears on, Omar’s father suggests they’d all be better off fighting—even as Omar says they might all die as martyrs. Nabil is missing in action for much of the movie, too.
A dead body is discovered in the wilderness. The literal pecking order of a chicken coop is discussed (with someone noting that chickens sometimes kill newcomers). Predators, the chicken philosopher adds, don’t distinguish between old chickens or new ones. “They’re all the same to wolves.” When Farhad brings home a chicken, someone wonders whether it would be better to kill it and eat it.
Omar, as mentioned, has a broken arm. We hear verbal references to rape. When a teacher tries to demonstrate the proper construction of an English sentence using the phrase, “I used to,” she says, “I used to have a dog. But then she got rabies, and I had to kill her.”
Three f-words and two s-words (along with three uses of a Scottish variation of the word). There’s also one misuse of Jesus’ name.
When Omar innocently asks the grocer if he’s a “Paki,” a term he thinks just refers to someone from Pakistan, the grocer points to a sign on the wall that reads, “No racism,” and then literally spells out all the derogatory terms forbidden from use, including the offensive one that Omar just used. (The grocer recites said list, too.)
As mentioned, we see quite a bit of racism here, though signs of it can be a bit conflicting. (The dialogue I quote in the introduction, for instance, ends when the local—who just told Omar not to rape anyone or blow anything up like those Al Qaeda types do, then offers to let Omar ride in his car for a literal spin around some sandy terrain.)
The plight of the refugees on the island is sometimes ignored, misunderstood or flat-out scorned. For instance, a charity at first hangs a sign that says “Refugees Welcome.” Later, the word “Not” has been added in red. When the teachers of the cultural integration class ask the refugees to form a sentence using the construction, “I used to,” One stands up and says, “I used to be happy before I came here. … I used to cry myself to sleep every night. But now I don’t have any tears left.” The teachers applaud his fine grasp of English while letting the sentiment slide right on by.
Several refugees are rounded up and packed into police vans, presumably to be deported. Many get in trouble for working at a local fish-packing plant. (Refugees are apparently forbidden from actually holding a job there.)
Farhad steals a chicken. There’s also a bit of misunderstanding among the refugees regarding what the phrase “free-range eggs” actually means. (Farhad believes the eggs must be free, but he’s not exactly sure what defines a range egg.) A sign in a grocery store says, “Please refrain from urinating in the freezer aisle.”
While this movie focuses its attention on neglected and far-flung refugees, Limbo feels ever-so British in style and sentiment. The film is filled with deadpan humor and quietly ludicrous moments—jokes told with a straight face and stiff upper lip. It helps the story’s underlying pathos and tragedy go down a little bit easier—and it might make its underlying messages stick with us a little bit better, too. This story may be quirky, but it’s deeply compassionate, too, giving face and voice to people we sometimes can’t—or don’t want to—see.
Limbo is also one of the milder R-rated movies someone will ever encounter. It’s three f-words are technically enough to push Limbo over that defining edge, but just barely, and no other content really qualifies.
Still, you could also argue that R rating is warranted, because this isn’t a film designed for children. Big themes and serious issues are in play here, cresting like waves on a faraway ocean. Tragedy roils, too—both threatened and real. The language and racism can be jarring.
Limbo is both silly and serious, delightful and, at times, despairing. That’s not an easy mix to get right, and the film doesn’t always succeed. Like the Scottish island at its core, this story’s terrain can be cold and hard. But it comes with its own strange beauty, too.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.