Cinema has a history of examining the breaking, ripping and pulling apart of families. What is almost never seen on screen is the rejoining and the reconnection of what was once broken, or the aftermath of what occurs when lives are forced back together. Ekwa Msangi's feature directorial debut Farewell Amor is a quiet, elegant film about a family torn apart by the Angolan Civil War only to reconnect 17-years later in New York City's JFK airport.
Walter (The Chi's Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is an Angolan-born taxi-cab driver who fled from Angola to New York City, leaving his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), behind. Now, nearly two decades later, having battled the United States' often chaotic and sometimes corrupt immigration system, the family is together once again. What should be a happy occasion is a tense meeting of virtual strangers.
Accustomed to life as a single man, with a routine that involves driving during the day, dancing at night and a beautiful lover, Linda (Nana Mensah), Walter struggles to make room for Esther and Sylvia in his home and in his heart. Still, he's determined to do what he feels is honorable. Stuffing down his feelings over the loss of Linda and the life he's grown accustomed to, Walter carves out space for his wife and daughter in his cramped one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. Meanwhile, Esther isn't quite the woman he once knew. Now a devout Christian who prays fervently and offers more than the family can afford in tides, Esther feels that God has truly blessed her family with their reunion. However, she struggles with the cracks and imperfections of her new family dynamic. America is a terrifying new world for a woman who has experienced so much loss. Though Walter is present, she feels his emotional absence, which only heightens the deep-seated loneliness that she's carried with her for so long.
It's also hard for Sylvia to adjust to life in a different place, but with more maturity than most teenagers in her position, she does her best to embrace her new life. In America, she's able to foster her secret love of dancing. The introverted teen also captures the eye of DJ (black-ish's Marcus Scribner), a boy at school who encourages her to try out for the step team. While she is used to living under the looming shadow of her beloved but Bible-bound mother, Sylvia recognizes that a relationship with a more lenient and understanding Walter may provide the kind of freedom that she's been craving, she's just uncertain if she can trust him.
Told in three parts, from Walter's, Sylvia's and then Esther's perspective, Farewell Amor is both quiet and indulgent. Msangi asks her audience to sit with the characters as they try to make headway in their new lives. Their past memories and present desires live and breathe in the film's silent moments. Though mostly melancholy in tone, with pain, longing and time lost as central themes, there are some light-hearted moments.
Nzinga (a bubbly Joie Lee), Walter's neighbor, becomes Esther's unlikely confidant. Despite her whimsical and carefree nature, so unlike Esther's reserved and buttoned-up personality, Esther clings on to Nzinga, who has a warmth reminiscent of her close-knit group of Christian girlfriends she left behind. Likewise, for Sylvia, when chatting with her best friend from back home, or while flirting with DJ, we see glimpses of what truly makes her happy. There is also dancing that connects the characters. Whether it's Sylvia's pronounced stomps from the step team choreography, Walter's agile moves on the dance floor or the reluctant sway of Esther's hips, dance is the language in which this family can truly hear and see each other.
Though it leans toward melodrama at times, Farewell Amor isn't meant to be a loud rallying cry about war-torn families. Instead, it's a captivating and well-acted character study about connection, loss and the emotional labor needed for second chances.
Farewell Amor premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2020.
Photo: Bruce Francis Cole/ Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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