January 17, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Ekwa Msangi
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Farewell Amor” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An Angolan immigrant in New York City is reunited with his wife and teenage daughter after spending 17 years apart from them.
Culture Audience: “Farewell Amor” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in immigrant stories that are rarely told about how family members who haven’t lived together other in several years suddenly have to adjust to living together again.
Can a family be put back together successfully after 17 years apart? That’s the question at the center of the multifaceted and emotional drama “Farewell Amor,” which tells the story from the perspectives of the three main characters: a husband, a wife and their teenage daughter. Written and directed by Ekwa Msangi in a spare but effective style, “Farewell Amor” shows the complications that can ensue when a family’s long-awaited reunion doesn’t necessarily equal instant happiness. It’s an aspect of the immigrant experience that’s rarely depicted in movies that are made in America.
“Farewell Amor” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, where Angolan immigrant Walter Santos (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) lives. Walter has been living in the United States for the past 17 years, after fleeing from war-torn Angola. He had to leave behind his wife Esther and baby daughter Sylvia, who both eventually relocated to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Although Walter has kept in touch over the years, he has not been in the same room as his wife and daughter for all those years. He never gave up on trying to bring them to the United States as legal immigrants. The movie has no flashbacks to this part of the family’s life, but the information is revealed in conversations.
The movie begins with Walter, Esther (played by Zainab Jah) and a now 17-year-old Sylvia (played by Jayme Lawson) reuniting at the airport and greeting each other with joyful hugs. But how long will that joy last? The movie creatively shows the perspective of each character in segments, with each segment beginning with the airport reunion.
Walter’s segment is shown first, followed by Sylvia’s and then Esther’s. Some scenes are repeated, but from the point of view of the person whose perspective is depicted. Other scenes are unique to a segment and help fill in some of the blanks. What the viewers get is a richly layered portrait about a family trying to live together again, but not being able to avoid the awkward realities and emotionally fraught impact of how this long separation has changed them individually.
Walter works as a taxi driver, and he lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s a mild-mannered man who’s happily made room for his wife and daughter, even though the living space will be cramped with three people living there. When Esther and Sylvia arrive at the apartment for the first time, Walter has thoughtfully prepared dinner for them. Esther is impressed and asks Walter who taught him to cook. Walter makes a vague reply that people can learn to cook with the will to learn and the right resources.
Walter has a secret that he doesn’t tell his wife and daughter when they settle into the apartment: He had a live-in girlfriend named Linda (played by Nana Mensah), a hospital nurse who moved out and broke up with Walter when she found out that Esther and Sylvia were coming back into Walter’s life. It’s later revealed that Linda knew all along about Esther and Sylvia. But because it took so long for their immigration to be approved, Walter moved on with his life, he met Linda, they fell in love, and started a life together.
Linda was living in the apartment long enough to have her mail delivered there. And when Esther sees an envelope of mail with Linda’s name on it, she asks Walter about it. He quickly makes an excuse that it’s mail that’s been delivered to the wrong address. Meanwhile, Walter notices during that first reunion meal with Esther and Sylvia that a strong-willed and outspoken Esther insists on giving a fervent prayer before eating.
Walter asks Esther when she became so religious, and she replies that it was after she and Sylvia moved to Tanzinia and they received refugee help from church members there. Esther isn’t just religious. She’s fanatically religious, to the point where she thinks dancing is sinful and she is against the idea of Sylvia dating, even though Sylvia is old enough to date.
And that’s a problem for Sylvia, who loves to dance. Sylvia can be quiet and introverted, but dancing is her creative outlet where she lets her personality shine the most. At her school in New York City, Sylvia is treated like an immigrant misfit, but she catches the eye of an attractive fellow student named Devin “DJ” Jamison (played by Marcus Scribner), who strikes up a conversation with a shy Sylvia when they’re waiting together at the same bus stop. DJ notices Sylvia practicing some dance moves, and he tells her about a local hip-hop dance contest where the grand prize is $1,000.
Sylvia eagerly enters the contest, even though she knows that her mother will greatly disapprove. By contrast, Walter has no problem with Sylvia being interested in dancing because he likes dancing too. Walter encourages Sylvia to pursue her dance dreams and doesn’t try to stop her when she tells him about the dance contest. Walter is so supportive of Sylvia that he wants to watch Sylvia and cheer her on when she’s in the contest. Sylvia and DJ gradually spend more time together, and their mutual attraction to each other grows.
Esther is very religious, but she’s not a complete prude, since she’s eager to resume her sex life with Walter, and she wants it to be passionate. She tells him during their first night together after being reunited that she hasn’t been with any other man since their separation. Walter doesn’t reply with a similar comment about remaining faithful. The expression on Esther’s face shows that she’s noticed this omitted statement of fidelity from Walter, but she wants to put any thoughts out of her mind that Walter might have been unfaithful, because she wants to get back to being a “normal” husband and wife.
However, their sexual intimacy is awkward, and Walter seems preoccupied with other thoughts. Esther can’t help but notice, and her suspicions deepen about Walter having another woman in his life. Walter sees Linda a few more times during the story, in situations that won’t be described in this review. But it’s enough to say that Sylvia has a chance encounter with Linda, and something happens that makes Sylvia also suspect that Linda was her father’s mistress.
The movie also shows that the breakup with Linda has deeply affected Walter. At a time when he should be happy to be reunited with his family, he’s secretly pining over Linda. He makes an attempt to see if he can still continue his relationship with Linda on the side. There’s a pivotal scene where Linda tells him what her decision is.
Walter is not religious and he’s uncomfortable with how religion has seemed to take over Esther’s life. Esther is so devoted to her church back in Tanzania that she still wants to tithe and send the money back to the church. And that’s a problem, because in New York, Esther hasn’t found a job yet and the family is on a very tight budget. Guess whose money Esther thinks should be tithed now that she and Walter back together?
Meanwhile, Esther meets a friendly neighbor named Nzingha (played by Joie Lee), who lives on the same floor. Nzingha invites Esther to go grocery shopping with her. They begin talking about the neighborhood, and Nzingha seems open to showing Esther around and helping her adjust to life in America. However, when Esther asks Nzingha if she knows if a woman named Linda used to live in the apartment where Walter and the family now live, Nzingha casually avoids answering the question.
Although “Farewell Amor” could have turned into a soap opera, the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being an overly melodramatic film. The movie is at its strongest in authentically showing little things that depict the gradual and sometimes painful realization that this family reunion in America isn’t quite the harmonious fantasy that all three of these family members thought it would be. As disappointment sets in, viewers can see the emotional toll it takes on each family member.
There’s a scene of Sylvia texting with her best friend Neema in Africa, and Neema thinks that Sylvia is living a glamorous life in New York. In reality, Sylvia’s life is anything but glamorous but she’s too embarrassed to admit it. And that’s probably because Sylvia had those same illusions of having an exciting life in America before she moved to America and found out it isn’t always what’s depicted on TV and in movies.
Meanwhile, it’s revealed at one point in the story that Walter and Esther met in college, where he was studying journalism and she was studying social sciences. But in America, Walter is a taxi driver and Esther is unemployed. It’s a depiction of the harsh reality that many immigrants experience in America, where they can’t benefit from the education that they earned in their native countries, usually because of language barriers and/or immigrant discrimination. Walter, Esther and Sylvia all speak very good English, but it’s implied that they’ll have uphill battles in the workforce from employers who might consider an education in Africa as “inferior.”
And even though the family is back together and living in the same household, each perspective of Walter, Sylvia and Esther shows that they are isolated in their own ways from each other. Walter had a secret life that he’s terrified of his wife and daughter discovering. Sylvia, who wants more independence as a teenager, is torn between the strict parent (Esther) who raised her and the more lenient parent Walter) whom she doesn’t really know. Esther’s religious fanaticism has caused a certain level of alienation from her husband and child.
“Farewell Amor” is an impressive feature-film debut from Masangi, who weaves the perspectives of these three different family members together in a very cohesive and compelling way. The movie resolves certain issues a little too quickly, but there’s enough emotional authenticity portrayed by the three main actors to carry the film. The family members in this story are African, but their immigrant experience of fleeing a war-torn country and trying to build a life together after years apart can speak to an untold number of people who’ve been through the same difficulties or feel empathy for those who have.
IFC Films released “Farewell Amor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.