'Farewell Amor': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A moving exploration of the meaning of home.
1/25/2020

Writer-director Ekwa Msangi's film follows an Angolan immigrant family newly reunited in New York City after almost two decades apart.

In her feature-length debut Farewell Amor, Ekwa Msangi explores the meaning of home for an Angolan immigrant family newly reunited in New York City after almost two decades apart.

According to the United Nations, the U.S. currently hosts 51 million international migrants (about 19 percent of the world’s population), the largest number of any country in the world. So a movie like Farewell Amor is both incredibly timely and also timeless, offering up a portrait of an experience that’s exceedingly common yet rarely depicted onscreen.

Spurred on by the outbreak of war in his home country, husband and father Walter immigrated to the U.S., where he earns a living driving a yellow cab. When visas for his wife Esther (Zainab Jah) and their daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) finally come through after he has spent 17 years apart from them, the family begins the process of merging their separate realities into one. As they are practically strangers to one another, the story unfolds with a wide view of the awkwardness in which they initially find themselves.

Saturated with rich blues and greens, the pic is visually vibrant yet subdued. It makes the Brooklyn neighborhood where the family shares a small one-bedroom apartment come alive without making it look like somewhere else. The cinematography strategically uses close-ups that push the audience to sit with the inner world of the characters. The score points in this direction, too, with its seamless transitions between on- and off-camera music cues — not to mention a killer dance battle scene in which Sylvia conjures home through improvised movement while her crush DJ (Marcus Scribner) cheers her on.

Msangi and her reliable cast do an excellent job at showing us how father and daughter gradually become reacquainted and eventually solidify their stagnant bond. Batman actor Jayme Lawson masters the accent of Sylvia’s native tongue, and The Chi actor Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine stuns with his elegant pauses and piercing stares that seem to jump through the screen.

Walter and Esther’s reconciliation is more complicated. Due to the war, Esther and Sylvia resettled in Tanzania, where they were immigrants in a Muslim country. Esther clings to her devout Christian faith — there are many scenes of her praying — to cull together a sense of home in another new foreign country. But what gave her a sense of safety in Tanzania now serves to further distance herself from her husband.

There’s nothing particularly surprising in Farewell Amor, but it’s also not predictable. The storytelling feels carefully constructed and works well at revealing the layers of each character at a satisfying pace. After a wider overview into the basic setup of the story, Msangi turns the point of view from omniscient third person to the individual perspectives of each character, starting with Walter. In this way viewers get to access the internal world of each main figure and are drawn in naturally as they attempt to piece together the full story. The movie also accomplishes this by not using subtitles, even though multiple languages other than English are spoken in the household depicted. As a result, the characters feel organically built before our eyes, and by the film’s end viewers are able to hold each of their distinct perspectives as valuable. 

Ultimately, Farewell Amor is a heartening meditation on the meaning of home not just for one African immigrant family, but for all of mankind. It evokes that meaning as something that is not fixed, but dynamic. Home is not necessarily a place — it’s where you feel connected, where you know who you are.

Production company: Outrageous Pictures
Cast: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Zainab Jah, Jayme Lawson, Nana Mensah, Joie Lee, Marcus Scribner
Writer-director: Ekwa Msangi
Producers: Huriyyah Muhammad, Josh Penn, Sam Bisbee, Ekwa Msangi
, Joe Plummer, Bobby Allen
Director of photography: Bruce Francis Cole
Composer: Osei Essed
Editor: Jeanne Applegate, Justin Chan
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (
U.S. Dramatic Competition)

101 minutes