Cléo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani) is a storm that is hard to contain: though pure, she’s capable of so much darkness. And she’s six years old. Raised by her Cape Verdean nanny, Gloria (Ilça Moreno Zego), after her mother’s death from cancer, Cléo feels possessive of the woman. Though we only see the extent of their closeness later through the fantasy sequences of a child’s earliest memories, marked by someone who paid attention to her and whose affection was all hers, it’s evident early on that Gloria is more than just a stand-in for Cléo’s mother. When the young girl returns home for the summer and is given the chance to stay with Gloria, she does everything in her small-fisted power to make it happen, even if it means she will awaken to the parts of her nanny’s life that don’t revolve around her. Director Marie Amachoukeli previously won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for a trio-directed feature called Party Girl, a similarly veristic and human drama staged with amateur actors. With Ama Gloria, she continues to trust in her actors’ ability, sticking close to their expressive faces and detailing frequent seismic emotional shifts, to tell a story of all the depths of a child’s scorned heart.
A child’s love may be innocent, but the power this innocence holds is beyond control. There’s a fairly direct allegory for colonialism in the way Cléo vies for Gloria’s attention upon the latter returning home. Gloria’s son, César (Fredy Gomes Tavares), is still young, and resents that his mother’s attention has lain elsewhere for years. Cléo’s clear and elementary sense of morality holds Gloria at its center— for her, lying to Gloria is the worst thing she could do, and effectively constitutes betrayal. That Gloria isn’t fully attentive to Cléo outside of her job as nanny isn’t cruel or distant in itself; it’s just the truth about life, and how our existences can be whittled down by those we encounter to roles and figures. But Cléo isn’t old enough, or ready, to grasp that her guardian’s private life could ever be as important as her own, and she is ready to try anything to win that affection back. She’s six — her innocence exists precisely because she has only seen the world through her own sheltered eyes, and in those eyes, Gloria is hers. The older woman, whose homecoming presents the rekindling of an old love and a project in the form of a half-built hotel, cannot take the place of Cléo’s mother. But Cléo has yet to understand this.
Ama Gloria yields a striking child performance; Cléo’s love for her caretaker is wrapped in idolatry and a need for power. She fights tooth and nail for love as young children do. Amachoukeli coaxes such a strong showing from the young actress in part because she understands that on screen power and complexity can often be rendered through vulnerability. The last of her former co-directing trio to release a solo feature — Claire Burger had Real Love in 2018, while Samuel Theis delivered Softie in 2021 — Ama Gloria makes it clear that Party Girl’s touching amateur performances weren’t coincidental. Rather than bank on showy workmanship and sweeping melodrama — though the film does contain some animated sequences, the purpose of which takes a while to become beautifully clear — Ama Gloria rests on Mauroy-Panzani and Moreno Zego’s shoulders, their strikingly layered performances the kind that can only come from letting an actor, or two, simply breathe.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.5.