Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Narrative coincidences distract from Farewell Amor’s thoughtful immigration story

Farewell Amor
Farewell Amor
Photo: IFC Films

Note: The writer of this review watched Farewell Amor on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.

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Our cultural myth about American immigration is pretty familiar at this point. You leave a war-torn country, perhaps somewhere that was fighting over religion, communism, or colonialism, and through some combination of luck and gumption, end up in the United States, land of opportunity. Years of hard work and pluck allow you to eventually assimilate into the fabric of America, to which you are eternally grateful for providing a better life than any you could have built back in your country of origin. Films like Mira Nair’s The Namesake and Alan Yang’s Tigertail have criticized the rose-tinted nature of that oft-told story with their nuanced depictions of what is lost in relocation. Joining the conversation those films started is Ekwa Msangi’s feature-length debut, Farewell Amor, whose strong cast elevates its portrait of the complex bonds between family and home.

Decades of violent conflict define Angola’s 20th-century history, from the uprising against Portuguese colonizers and a war of independence (circa 1961 to 1974) to the 27-year civil war and nationalist struggle that followed. More than 4 million Angolans were displaced during the latter, with some traveling abroad to flee the fighting. Farewell Amor follows one such refugee: Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who left behind his wife, Esther (Zainab Jah), and daughter, Sylvia (Jayme Lawson), for a new life in New York City. For 17 years, they’ve lived aboard, keeping in touch over the phone and by letters as Esther and Sylvia fled Angola for Tanzania, and as Walter petitioned over and over to bring his wife and daughter to the States. Finally and unexpectedly, his application is accepted, reuniting spouses who haven’t seen each other in nearly two decades and a daughter with the father she barely knows.

Farewell Amor begins with Walter meeting Esther and Sylvia at the airport, then cycles through each of their perspectives. Three individual chapters named after each family member fill in narrative gaps and reframe our judgments. The film begins with Walter, who most immediately gains our sympathy because his life is so recognizably American: His one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment was already cramped before two additional people moved in; his job as a taxi driver includes tolerating silly clients and overly familiar colleagues; he has a directive from his doctor to lower his cholesterol and eat less salt. By starting Farewell Amor with his story, Msangi sketches in plain detail the experience of being a working-class immigrant in the United States. Walter might find broad solidarity with other refugees who also fled their homelands, but very few people understand the details of his particular journey—and the immense weight of remaining loyal to someone who is half a world away.

Sylvia’s and Esther’s stories follow Walter’s, and although those chapters allude to what their lives were like in Angola and then Tanzania (Sylvia’s online conversations with her best friend and her passion for dance; Esther’s calls on a phone card to a religious guide who encourages her strict Christian ideology), Msangi mostly keeps the focus on the small details that can make adapting to American life so difficult. What type of shoes should Sylvia wear on her first day of school? Are the boys asking her to do the “Wakanda Forever” salute acting out of friendliness or cruelty? Which neighborhood grocery store should Esther frequent? And when mail comes to Walter’s apartment addressed to a woman named Linda, is it an honest mistake by the postal service or something Esther needs to worry about?

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Farewell Amor
Farewell Amor
Photo: IFC Films

Time is fluid in Farewell Amor, and the casualness with which Msangi shares that days and weeks have passed underscores the lingering discomfort of this reunited family unit. The tightness of the apartment aids in the awkwardness, too: Sound carries easily, so Esther’s enthusiastic praying is uncomfortably overheard by Walter and Sylvia as they sit in the living room; Esther and Sylvia are early risers, so Walter joining them in the kitchen for breakfast is framed like an intrusion. Such moments effectively capture the reality that these people are strangers to each other, and that there are long-simmering resentments on all sides. Mwine’s performance is particularly strong. While his soft-spoken gentleness is at first charming, it starts looking more like a shield against his wife’s and daughter’s understandable mistrust. Esther and Sylvia are less developed than Walter because the film stays in New York City rather than flashing back to the life they left behind, but Jah and Lawson each have a few standout scenes that drive home the strangeness of their situation.

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What ultimately dampens Farewell Amor, though, are some too-neat storytelling shortcuts that overly simplify the relationships between these people. Dance is used as a glimpse into a shared past between Walter and Esther and as a solution to their familial disunity, but it can’t quite stand up to the reality of economic struggle or the allure of religious fervor. Charming as it is to see Walter and Esther rediscover their physical attraction while sashaying around a restaurant during a dinner date, the scene doesn’t achieve the intended transformational power. Similarly simplified is how the secrets family members are hiding from each other manifest in a selection of forbidden objects (a set of white lacy sheets, a gold pendant, a wad of cash) whose eventual uncovering facilitates an unexpectedly pat conclusion. The film’s final moments suggest a benign American domesticity that its preceding scenes purposefully interrogate. But before that jarring ending, Farewell Amor is clever and unpredictable, using familiar tropes about assimilation to arrange demonstrations of honesty, regret, and love for its characters.