▶︎ Farewell Amor is streaming on Mubi from 18 December 2020.

Ekwa Msangi’s immigrant drama Farewell Amor opens with a scene of an airport reunion shot at a short distance, the figures almost blankly silhouetted against the glass walls. The film will follow the subsequent events from the perspective of all three characters in this awkward vignette. There’s Walter (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), the Brooklyn-based taxi driver who left his family behind in Angola when he emigrated to the US 17 years earlier, after the outbreak of civil war. He is tentatively embracing his wife Esther (Zainab Jah), who subsequently fled to Tanzania with their baby daughter, and found solace in her church during their estrangement. Daughter Sylvia (newcomer Jayme Lawson), now a sullen if elegant teenager, hovers behind her mother.

Before the film divides itself three ways, the family sits down to dinner in Walter’s too-small Brooklyn apartment – and already fault lines appear, especially between husband and wife. Esther wonders who taught Walter to cook such bland food, and insists on an alarmingly lengthy, increasingly zealous grace before the meal. Sylvia, pointedly, has little to say to the stranger who has been absent her whole life.

Yet there’s a hidden problem yet to emerge – an emotional bomb tucked under the dinner table. Farewell Amor expands on Msangi’s 2016 short film Farewell Meu Amor, about a romance between an immigrant named Walter and a woman called Linda, which comes to a premature end when Walter’s family join him in New York. Nana Mensah reappears here as Linda, first seen in a flashback early in Walter’s section of the film, sorrowfully removing her belongings from the flat – an early example of Jeanne Applegate and Justin Chan’s remarkably deft editing. But there’s one item left behind, a parcel of bedsheets that will reappear at the worst possible moment, prompting the film’s dramatic climax.

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine as Walter and Jayme Lawson as Sylvia in Farewell Amor

Despite the carefully plotted elements of suspense, including those sheets and a specific sum of money that remains tantalisingly out of reach, this is a tender, low-key melodrama, which develops sympathy for all of its protagonists equally, and prefers complication to resolution. Its tripartite structure is seemingly designed not just to untangle the group’s individual perspectives but to nudge us into desiring their unification, a sense that the family will be stronger together now, even if they separate in the long run. It won’t be easy, but the film suggests that it is healthy to keep a certain distance, and secrets, even within close family bonds: Sylvia happily exchanges luridly sexual emojis and gifs on her phone with her best friend in Tanzania, while talking to her mother in the kitchen in New York. For years Walter has been supporting his family in Tanzania, while living with Linda in Brooklyn. All three members of the family have cultivated entirely separate lives, and yet Walter and Sylvia retain a respect for church and family.

There are few easy options here. Walter is too busy working to introduce the two women to their new home and it’s of note that confrontation, not conciliation, helps the two women integrate into American culture. Esther befriends an outspoken Muslim neighbour (a spiky appearance to relish from Joie Lee), who guides her round the neighbourhood to find African ingredients and lends her a dress for a night out while talking mockingly of her “white Jesus”. Sylvia is interested in a dance contest but not content to follow the group routine, so she enters as a soloist and battles the local champion on the floor.

Jayme Lawson as Sylvia in Farewell Amor

Walter, who appears to have adapted well to his new life in New York, would call these experiences formative. He tells his daughter: “This country is very hard for black people.” As a New York cabbie, he appears to be America’s model immigrant, enterprising but modest. Nevertheless he has enjoyed freedoms his wife can barely imagine. The appearance of Esther and Sylvia throws a different light on his behaviour, emphasising his abandonment of church and his mother’s recipes: small betrayals that combine to escalate his affair with Linda to a capital offence.

So there will be no family unity without conflict. Walter has broken Esther’s trust; she prays and complains that they are “unequally yoked”. And yet she tests him too. She crowds the apartment with signifiers of her faith, where once there was little more decoration than an Obama calendar. She donates Walter’s hard-earned cash to her church, in expectation of divine favour. He has little strength left to argue the point.

It’s the details that count. Msangi’s characters are watchful, they listen at doors, and pick up on hints. The extra notes dropped in the collection plate; Sylvia’s blue patent Dr. Martens, which she wears to spite her mother; a familiar necklace; and a slip of the tongue during a prayer, which reveals Esther hoped Walter would return to Africa. Bruce Francis Cole’s warm photography supports the delicacy of Msangi’s screenplay well. He favours a close-up on one of her impeccable lead actors, or a square-on set-up in the apartment that places one, two or all three figures as pointedly as they were at the airport.

Zainab Jah as Esther and Jayme Lawson as Sylvia in Farewell Amor

All three lead performances are captivating, especially Mwine’s rendering of romantic heartbreak in conflict with familial care. It’s in his solo scenes that we realise quite how much he loves Linda, how much he has given up. Jah does very well to pull her character free of her easily spoofed religious intensity, and is genuinely affecting, even when seeking extortionately priced spiritual guidance on the phone from Dar es Salaam.

Lawson’s Sylvia takes longer to emerge from her shell but shares a particularly touching scene with Walter, when he confesses that he too finds liberation in dance. We interpret his words doubly: we have seen him taking a spin with Linda in a club, their jazzy shoes nudging each other, his hands around her waist.

All of these thoughtfully placed notes seem to herald a thunderous climax, but Msangi pulls back from fireworks and treats us to a restorative, if open conclusion: the start of more honest communication between husband, wife and daughter. Farewell Amor tackles familiar themes and offers no easy solutions, but it leaves lingering emotional traces, with a trio of memorably believable characters. In offering a little less than we might expect, Msangi has achieved a great deal.

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