Farewell Amor REVIEW – An Intimate Approach to Immigrant Drama

Tanzanian American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi crafts a story of a deeply personal immigrant experience.

Farewell Amor
Farewell Amor

The topic of immigration has been brought to the centerfold of international politics once again these past few years. With it has come a wide variety of immigrant stories from all across the globe, delivered to the masses through journalism, books, television, and movies. Many of them focus on the terror of their journeys and the inhumane treatment they receive – atrocities that need to have a light shone on them – but with Farewell Amor, Tanzanian American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi crafts a story of a deeply personal immigrant experience: finding connection with the ones you lost long ago.

Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is a soft-spoken cab driver trying to make a living in New York City. 17 years ago, he was forced to leave his home of Angola, and with it, his wife Esther (Zainab Jah), and their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). The film opens on a simple, backlit shot of the moment Walter is finally reunited with his family, allowing us to focus on their body language. Walter and Esther’s embrace is joyful but a bit timid, and Sylvia’s rigid stance is one of awkward discomfort. Nearly two decades proves to be a long time. As Walter gets the two women settled into his one-bedroom apartment, the transition isn’t quite as smooth as they wish it to be.

Walter can’t really find a way to communicate with his daughter, nor her with him – the two haven’t actually known each other for all of her life. As for him and Esther, their time apart has caused a rift. Esther found religion in her husband’s absence, and her prayers before meals make him uncomfortable. He’s especially unhappy when he accompanies her to church, a place where she flourishes, but he may be willing to tolerate it. What he can’t look past are her generous donations to the church; supporting a family in a city like New York isn’t cheap, and Walter wasn’t exactly living large before that. The two also struggle with intimacy. Esther desires her husband’s touch but Walter is cold, racked with layers of guilt.

Msangi separates Farewell Amor into three segments, each one showing the perspectives of the three characters. Each face their own tribulations as they attempt to adjust to their new lives.

This isn’t an immigrant story about racism, although that isn’t ignored, as shown when Walter has to give Sylvia the talk about what it means to be black in the United States, and a foreigner at that. Nor is this a story about the difficulties of assimilation, although that too is addressed in subtle ways, like shots of Sylvia having to go through metal detectors and having her bag searched for school, or Esther’s homesickness. It’s a quiet film, with little to no overbearing score attempting to beef up the drama of its scenes. So much is told simply through the eyes of the cast and the unsaid truths behind them, and all three actors deliver vulnerable, tender, and brilliant performances.

For such a melancholic title and subject matter, there remains a lightness and a spark of hope amongst the heartbreak. A shared love of dance provides a way in for the family to reconnect, and the cultural significance of that can’t be understated. The intimacy and time-halting nature of dance is perfectly captured by cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole, who has the camera watch the feet, the hips, and the arms as the music takes over. For Walter, going out dancing is when he can finally let his guard down and be himself. For Esther, it’s a moment she can be close to her husband. For Sylvia, it’s the chance to break out of her shell and show who she is.

Farewell Amor is full of touching, beautiful moments and others of silent sorrow. It’s not perfect – a teenage romance plot between Sylvia and a boy named DJ (Marcus Scribner) doesn’t work as well as the rest of the film, and while the two are fine actors, the chemistry just isn’t there and their scenes are stunted by awkward and generic dialogue. But the film is still a stunning and rather moving debut, solidified by strong performances and a tremendous final shot. What Msangi has proved here is that there are endless tales of immigration and all that comes with it, and sometimes, the smaller ones can be the most insightful.

Review screener provided.

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Farewell Amor
Farewell Amor is a quiet and personal story of an immigrant family attempting to rebuild what they lost.