Think of how many films there have been about the Irish immigrant experience in the USA. Or the Italian. Farewell Amor is a real rarity, because it’s looks at that fraught, hopeful new beginning through African eyes.
Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) is a refugee from Angola who went through the civil war there and is now living in New York, where he drives a cab. He’s been separated from his family for 17 years, but is now finally reunited with them. In fact that’s the first scene of Ekwa Msangi’s film: Walter, his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and teenage daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) meeting at JFK airport.
The look on Sylvia’s face sets the tone for the rest of the film. She isn’t sure she really wants to be there and doesn’t really know who this guy is. She’s maybe 18 and so that figures.
That first look immediately takes Farewell Amor from being all about migration statistics and global flows of refugees and instead makes it about a family trying to revive a bond which has, in effect, died in the years they’ve been apart.
Three things stand in the way of a rekindling of old connections. Walter has built a life for himself in America, and that includes a loving relationship with a local medic (Nina Mensah), who he’s just dumped to make a new go of his old life. Esther has become hyper-religous in the intervening years, saying grace before eating with a fervour that bewilders Walter and frequently phoning Africa to speak to someone called Sister Redemptor for spiritual backup. Sylvia’s teenage growing pains have become multiplied by the added dislocation of being a new kid on the block. Being black and a foreigner, her father warns her, are a double burden in this country.
The film started life as a ten minute short and one of the ways that writer/director Msangi has bulked it out is by re-running the opening “getting to know you” scenes twice more, first from the perspective of the wife (who intuits that something is up in the relationship between her and Walter) and then the daughter (edging into a possible romance at school, trying to gain status with her peers with her dance moves, leaning towards a thaw in the frosty relationship with her father).
There’s something a touch half-hearted about the amount of time allotted to these digressions. Walter seems to be the character that Msangi is really interested in, and these feel like flailing attempts to prove her film is about more than him. On the upside, they give a chance for both Zainab Jah and Jayme Lawson to exercise an acting muscle or two.
I wondered where exactly in Africa these three actors came from. The US and the UK is the answer, which just goes to show. All three are excellent, but the standout is Mwine, who exudes a warmth and charisma that shouldn’t do his late-blossoming career any harm at all.
Actually, the acting (and casting) stand out throughout. Nana Mensah as Linda conveys the fact that Walter has broken her heart in a handful of convincing looks – she doesn’t get much screen time. Joie Lee (sister of Spike) adds a dash of spice just when the film needs it as the next door neighbour who takes Esther under her wing and gives her sisterly streetwise advice – she doesn’t get much screentime either.
The excursions into structure to one side, it’s a simple and direct drama that achieves its best effects when the dialogue recedes, the camera pulls back and the characters simply interact in the small New York apartment they now all call home. Bristling here, softening there, it’s ensemble acting at a high pitch.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021