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An Immigrant Family Is Reunited After 17 Years In The Sweetly Moving 'Farewell Amor'

After a 17-year separation, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) greets his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Ekwa Msangi) at JFK airport in the opening scene of <em>Farewell Amor. </em>
IFC Films
After a 17-year separation, Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) greets his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and daughter Sylvia (Ekwa Msangi) at JFK airport in the opening scene of Farewell Amor.

Farewell Amor begins with a scene at JFK Airport, where a man greets the wife and teenage daughter he hasn't seen in years.

It's a moving but awkward reunion. Seventeen years ago, Walter left their war-torn home country, Angola, and moved to New York, where he now works as a taxi driver. His wife, Esther, and their daughter, Sylvia, relocated from Angola to Tanzania, where they've been living ever since while waiting for their U.S. visas. The details of this backstory are hinted at rather than spelled out, and Walter, Esther and Sylvia don't seem inclined to dwell too much on the past.

Over the course of this beautifully filmed and sweetly moving drama, the writer and directorEkwa Msangiwill keep rewinding back to this airport reunion scene and then letting the events of the next several days play out, each time from a different character's perspective.

Farewell Amor is sort of like the Rashomonof New York immigrant stories: It's deeply empathetic toward all three of its protagonists, giving each of them the same dramatic weight and bringing to light their specific struggles and anxieties.

Msangi drew the story from the experience of her own Tanzanian relatives. She clearly understands the hardship of not just being uprooted culturally and torn away from your loved ones — but also finding that your loved ones have become strangers.

The first character we get to know is Walter, who has clearly tried his hardest to make his one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment a suitable home for three people. Walter is played with great tenderness by the actor Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, whom audiences may recognize from the Showtime series The Chi.

Despite his happiness at being reunited with his family, there's a lingering sadness in Walter's gaze, and we soon learn that he's nursing a broken heart. Unbeknownst to his family, he had a girlfriend with whom he used to share this apartment — a serious relationship that ended shortly before his wife and daughter came to New York.

Farewell Amor acknowledges the ways in which a long-term separation can impact a marriage, and the challenges of adjusting to a new country. Walter has had a 17-year head start, and he's more or less fully embraced his American identity. He loves New York and enjoys life's simple pleasures, like dancing in clubs or having a glass of wine with dinner. That puts him somewhat at odds with Esther, a strictly observant Christian who drags her reluctant husband and daughter to church at the first opportunity.

Esther is played by Zainab Jah, and in some ways she has the trickiest role, since overtly pious characters can so easily tilt into caricature. But Jah gives a wonderful performance, revealing the sincerity of Esther's good intentions as she struggles to reconnect physically and emotionally with her husband, and to hold the family together in a place that doesn't feel like home. One of the film's loveliest scenes finds Esther bonding with her Muslim neighbor, played by a terrific Joie Lee, who takes her grocery shopping and helps her find something to wear out to dinner with Walter.

As Sylvia, Jayme Lawson is sympathetic and entirely believable even in a storyline that hits some familiar coming-of-age beats. Like a lot of teenagers, Sylvia seems moody and withdrawn at first. Her great passion is dancing, something she hides from her disapproving mom but bonds over with her more supportive dad. She eventually joins a competitive dance troupe at school, which is perhaps the movie's most contrived development. The dance contest that looms at the end of the story becomes a way for Sylvia to express herself creatively and feel a sense of belonging in her new American home. It's also a convenient way for the movie to bring Walter and Esther's marital friction to a dramatic head.

But even with its share of conventional elements, Farewell Amor never plays out quite as you might expect. There are ultimately no easy resolutions here — just three subtly drawn, fundamentally decent people trying to rebuild a life together under trying circumstances. Sometimes you can feel a filmmaker's love for her characters simply through the care with which she films them, and Msangi is especially attentive not only to her actors' faces but also their bodies, the way they move through space — clumsily at first, but with growing ease as the bonds of family gradually reassert themselves. The hopeful note on which this movie ends also feels like a new beginning.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.