Farewell Amor: Review. By Trenyt Neely.
This film from writer/director Ekwa Msangi follows an Angolan family reunited after 17 years apart. Father and husband Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), his wife Esther (Zainab Jah), and their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson). Upon initially reuniting, all are filled with an understandable mix of joy and trepidation given the years that have gone by. Walter has been working as a cab driver in New York City, waiting and petitioning for the immigration process to be finalized so his wife and daughter could join him. It is soon revealed however, that Walter had a serious relationship with another woman during his separation from Esther and Sylvia, causing him great guilt.
Compounding his guilt is the fact that during their time apart, Esther has become a strict Christian. She spends the film regularly listening to sermons and forcing Walter and Sylvia to attend church and pray fervently, even though they do not share her level of zeal for the faith. For her part, Sylvia finds herself in conflict with her desire to pursue her passion for dance and her mother’s disapproval of it, as she views it to be immodest. In addition, Sylvia does not have a lot of memories of her father. Not only is she far from her friends and what is familiar as she is thrust into American society, but she has to develop a bond with a man she hardly knows. The film follows this family as they seek to navigate the American experience, deal with their personal struggles, and build their family and life together after such a lengthy time apart.
One of this film’s greatest strengths is how much care and time it takes with its three protagonists. Msangi chooses to have the film separated into three sections, each one titled and focused on one member of the family. This allows for the full depth and complexity of each character to shine through and minimizes the degree that a character is reduced to cliches or simplistic interpretations.
Consequently, such a character-centric approach requires strong performances, and the actors here more than meet the challenge. Mwine as Walter perfectly captures the struggle of a man who has sacrificed and worked for years to build a future and a life for his family, while at the same time wrestling with the fact that he has lost a lot of time with them and must therefore rebuild those relationships. Also, he must reconcile that while he loves his family, he developed a genuine love and bond with another woman. Mwine portrays this effectively by delivering a lot of his dialogue in hushed tones and with his head down. This goes a long way in showing the audience a man of a caring nature, and also one who carries a lot on his shoulders.
Jah also does a great job taking on a role that could have proved to be somewhat limiting. It is easy at the start of the film to view the character of Esther as overly fearful and controlling due to the severity of her religious convictions. However once one gets to the portion of the film focused on her and sees the history and context surrounding her, it is understood that her faith is her anchor during a turbulent time in her life as she is adjusting to this new country. In addition, she has a layered view of America as a land of opportunity, but also a land of corruption if one does not stay vigilant. As a result, she views it as her Christian duty to remain prayerful not just for her own sake, but the sake of her husband and daughter. Jah has the added challenge of spending a lot of screen time isolated as her character is home alone while Walter works and Sylvia attends school. This means Jah must convey these complex emotions largely through prayers that serve as monologues, and phone calls where her speech and facial expressions are her main tools, which Jah uses to great effect.
Similarly, Lawson imbues Sylvia with a maturity not always present in teen characters. Sylvia wants to pursue dance and ordinary teen experiences, we see the joy on Lawson’s face when she is lost in music. At the same time, she does not wish to upset her mother by dancing, who has been her sole source of comfort and stability during her life. Ironically, Sylvia’s relationship with Walter really begins to grow when he encourages her to pursue dance, even though both of them know it upsets Esther. When Sylvia upsets her mother, the sadness and pain is as clear on Lawson’s face in these moments as the moments of joy are when she dances.
The film’s cinematography also does a great job of showing the complex relationships between the three characters. For the scene of their reunion at the airport that opens the film, cinematographer Bruce Francis Cole keeps the camera far away from the action and refuses to cut the opening shot for a long time. This allows the apprehension and stiffness the characters are experiencing to be conveyed succinctly and stronger than dialogue probably could. Even as film progresses, Cole frequently uses wide-angle lenses for dialogue scenes, so even when characters are in a relatively small space, it feels like there is a great distance between them. Again using the power of visuals to show how difficult it can be to rebuild relationships after long periods of absence.
If you are looking for a film that offers a deep, nuanced, character-driven look at the immigrant experience and how that affects a family, seek this film out if given the chance.
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