“Farewell Amor” – An end and a beginning [MOVIE REVIEW]

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as ‘Walter’, Zainab Jah as ‘Esther’ and Jayme Lawson as ‘Sylvia’ in Ekwa Msangi’s FAREWELL AMOR. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release

“Farewell Amor,” written and directed by Ekwa Msangi, is a thoughtful, deep dive into the meaning of family, separation, and cultural divides. It is an exquisite, slow unveiling of the collision of culture, belief structures, and familial chasms that develop over distances, both in miles and minds.

Msangi, dipping into her own family history, tells the story of Walter, who immigrated to the U.S. at the end of the Angolan Civil War. Lucky enough to get a visa, he had to leave his wife and baby daughter behind. Trying for 17 years to get a visa for his family, his application has finally been approved and Esther, his wife, and Sylvia, the now grown daughter, are due to arrive. His emotions are complicated. Happy that the family will finally be reunited, he is apprehensive. During that 17 years, he has carved out a very American life, one that included a woman, Linda, he loved and must now abandon. An educated man, he has had to support himself as a cab driver and negotiate the racism and more subtle but ever present xenophobia that stifles any chance at upward mobility. His reunion will be bittersweet.

Esther, with Sylvia in tow, arrives hopeful and bubbling with enthusiasm. Her every sentence is punctuated with a “Thanks be to God.” After Walter’s departure from an untenable Angola, Ester moved to Tanzania with Sylvia where she found solace and purpose in Evangelical Christianity. It is the wall she has built to protect her and Sylvia from the influences of the outside world. But that “outside” has now breached the inside and she is fast losing her place in the world. It is to church that she goes, dragging a reluctant Walter and Sylvia along.

Sylvia, at 18, must navigate a new country, a new school, and new mores. She is a dancer and finds an outlet for her talent and a male friend with whom to share her thoughts. But both the friend and her love of dance are sins in the eyes of her mother who forbids her any outside activity or friends.

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as ‘Walter’and Jayme Lawson as ‘Sylvia’ in Ekwa Msangi’s FAREWELL AMOR. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

The gulf between each individual widens with every passing day. Dividing the film into three main sections, Msangi, non-judgmentally gives each family member a reasoned point of view. Each segment presents the story of each character in a way that is individual to that person and overlapping with the others. They each have a joint history, even if most of it has been by weekly phone calls but have each lived separate and disparate lives. That they come together at all speaks to the hope they have in themselves and one another. But will it be enough? That is the question Msangi poses and leaves for the viewer to answer.

Msangi, a Tanzanian-American, understands cultural conflicts and has presented the story of these three people in a loving and complex manner. Each of the three is searching, but their quests are, to a great extent, at cross purposes. It is the beauty of her writing that each has a firm belief structure but that it may be impossible for them to intertwine. It is the strength of her directing that she has found a way to keep the film compelling and emotionally moving. Msangi embodies the very best characteristics of a writer/director who understands the story better than anyone else could have and presents it through her own personal prism.

The cast that Msangi has assembled is outstanding. Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as Walter is the core. Mwine expresses his cultural ambivalence in his eyes and posture; he is torn between what he is now, what he was before, and how he cannot reconcile the two. Mwine embodies the hopes of someone who saw a better future in escaping the horrors of the Civil War and has been disappointed at every turn but has never given up. If Mwine is not a recognizable star, he should be. He is the lead in Lena Waithe’s “The Chi” and will soon be seen in Solomon Onita’s film “Tazmanian Devil.”

Zainab Jah as Esther walks the high wire of stability and religious fanaticism. She skillfully reveals the human hope and desire beneath the defensive evangelical safety net of her own construction. An established theater actress, she should receive some much deserved attention from this role. Most recently she played Harriet Tubman in the Showtime series called “The Good Lord Bird,” based on James McBride’s award-winning novel.

Jayme Lawson as Sylvia was a real find.  This recent Julliard graduate makes her film debut in “Farewell Amor” and sets her scenes on fire with the ire and heat in her gaze. She straddles the line between loyal daughter and frustrated young adult who may have to give up her future for the sake of her mother. Lawson successfully balances teenage anger with adult understanding. Lawson’s Sylvia is awkward, resentful, emotional, and cold. She is able to blossom and shrink almost simultaneously. If there is justice in the world, she will have the great career she deserves.

Time invested in “Farewell Amor” is well worth it. A surprise in terms of depth, story and character development, it is the kind of film not seen enough on American screens. You will be better for having seen it and getting to know Walter, Esther, and Sylvia.

Opening December 11 on Digital and VOD platforms, as well as in theaters where that is allowed.

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Written by: Neely Swanson

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