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Quiet detective drama reveals the subtle machinations of racism in an impoverished desert town of Australia - from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival


Travis Hunter (Simon Baker) is a lone and middle-aged cop on a mission. He has been asked to review a case from 20 years earlier, when a young girl called Charlotte Hayes mysteriously disappeared from a small mining town, somewhere in the Opal Mining Fields of South Australia. Travis injects drugs and listen to the gospel on his car radio. He in search of meaning for very own life: “I don’t like anyone, and nobody really likes me”, he pours his heart out at one point. He has an estranged son about whom he thinks every day, however he does not attempt to make a reconnection. He is probably concerned that his only descendant could turn out just like his father.

His investigation begins with Charlotte’s brother Charlie (Rob Collins), who promptly tells him to “fuck off” without even accepting his professional card. Charlotte’s sister Emma (Natasha Wanganeen) isn’t particularly welcoming, either. She accepts his professional card, but then refuses to talk to him. The fact that Travis is white turns out to be the biggest barrier. Charlie, Emma are indigenous Australians, while their missing Charlotte is black. They share a mother (who is presumably dead), but were fathered by three different men (who we never meet). Charlie and Emma gradually let their defences down, as they realise that Travis is well-intentioned and indeed just as despondent.

Emma looks after Charlie’s two children (a teenage boy called Zac and girl) and also one girl of her own. Charlie has become an alcoholic hermit on a trailer in the middle of the desert. Just like Travis, has no contact to his offspring. The two men bond in such complicity. Emma has a more functional life, taking good care of her daughter, her niece and her nephew. But she too is very lonely, with many boyfriends but no romantic stability. She thus connects with Travis’s solitude.

Other characters include a black man called Oscar (Joshua Warrior) and an old white man called Joseph (Nicholas Hope). Joseph is a the brother of Leon, the person most likely responsible for Charlotte’s death. Oscar was framed by the police two decades earlier as they desperately sought to find a culprit for Charlotte’s disappearance (and apparent murder). Little by little, we learn that the police investigation two decades earlier had little interest in finding the real culprit, but instead served to humiliate and criminalise brown and black people. The tactics of Australia’s racist police involve violence and harassment, leaving victims with profound physical and psychological scars.

Described as a “desert noir” and a “neo Western”, this black-and-white movie is in reality a study of loneliness and the passed on legacy of trauma. All characters are united in their crippling anhedonia, and also in the inability to trust the system and its institutions. The filmmaker Ivan Sen is indigenous Australian: he may have projected his own experiences and sentiments onto the silver screen.

The landscape plays a central role. The Limbo Hotel (where Travis stays) and the local church are built inside an artificial grotto, presumably an abandoned mining site. The entire area is pierced with large artificial holes and mounds, vaguely resembling the moon when filmed from above. Most of the film was shot in the mining town of Coober Pedy and its surroundings. A place so poor that it looks like the story takes place decades ago (in reality it is set in the present day). A place removed from civilisation, and full of scars. Just like our characters. A place in search of a soul and new lease of life. Just like our characters.

Limbo is showing in the Official Competition of the 73 Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 23-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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