‘Ama Gloria’ Review: A Moving Drama Tests the Special Bond Between a French Girl and Her Cape Verdean Nanny

It is unlikely that this Cannes will yield many characters as strikingly well-drawn as Cléo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani), the star of Marie Amachoukeli’s small but acutely affecting Critics’ Week opener “Ama Gloria.” Over the course of an efficient 84 minutes, Cléo changes and resists change, she learns and rejects life lessons, she befriends and betrays. She is funny, somber, silly, conniving, shockingly selfish and shiningly pure, sometimes all in the space of an afternoon. She is six years old.

Cléo, a bundle of personality under a tangle of hair and pair of thick glasses, lives in Paris with her affable widower Dad, Arnaud (Arnaud Rebotini), but is raised mostly by her beloved Cape Verdean nanny Gloria (Ilça Moreno Zego). Their relationship is close as a goodnight kiss, and obviously mutually adoring — witness the exchange of incandescent smiles when Cléo sees Gloria waiting at the school gates. So it’s a heavy blow to both when Gloria has to return to Cape Verde following the death of her mother. Gloria’s own daughter Fernanda (Abnara Gomes Varela) is already a young woman, and pregnant with her first child. But her son César (Fredy Gomes Tavares) is still a kid, and now needs the motherly supervision that Gloria has spent many years lavishing on Cléo.

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To soothe the anguish of impending separation, Gloria proposes to Arnaud that Cléo spend the summer with her in Cape Verde. Arnaud, in the manner of many a parent, says he’ll think about it, but never really intends to permit it. Almost more than not being allowed to go, it is this white lie that provokes Cléo’s anger. In her black-and-white perception of the world, “lying to Gloria” is maybe the greatest sin a human can commit. She is so steadfast in her anger that her father eventually relents, and Cléo lights up like a lantern once more, this time as she races into Gloria’s waiting embrace at the airport gates.

It is perhaps the last time things will be this simple for Cléo. Gloria is as loving as ever and the Cape Verdean locals take to her with kindly amusement, but César is surly as a thundercloud, resentful of the girl who stole away his mother and returned her to him so long later, practically a stranger. And there are other demands on Gloria’s attention: not just her family, but the half-built hotel she is trying to get off the ground, and even perhaps the old smolder of a long-neglected romance. There are many rite-of-passage stories out there but, perhaps because it happens so early in life, few deal so precisely with the internal Copernican revolution that occurs when innocent self-centredness gives way to the realization that other people have other things in their lives apart from you.

This is Amachoukeli’s solo directing debut, having previously co-directed the Camera d’Or-winning “Party Girl” alongside Claire Burger and Samuel Theis. But aside from the detail of brief animated interludes done in a pleasant paintbrush style, that seem initially superfluous but come good in one dramatic late cut, Amachoukeli has a mature confidence in narrative and presentational simplicity, the better to linger on the seamless subtleties of Mauroy-Panzani’s exceptional performance. DP Inès Tabarin’s warm close-up camerawork leaves the girl nowhere to hide, and yet from the broadest gesture to the minutest flicker of apprehension in her magnified eyes, everything we get from her is true and honest. In one extraordinary scene when, having committed a terrible act, Cléo confesses her dark motives, she conveys confusion, guilt and sudden self-loathing with a psychological sincerity that would be startling in an actor five times her age.

Right down to the vicious tactics Cléo is willing to use to keep Gloria all to herself, there is a fairly schematic colonialism allegory available here if you want it. Like Cléo’s proprietorial demands on Gloria’s time and affection, European imperialist thinking was mired in a belief not just in their right to ownership of African colonies, but also in the benevolence of that relationship, which caused bewilderment and indignation — and often violence — when the colonized sought independence.

But although the film’s straightforward structure certainly allows for this interpretation, Mauroy-Panzani’s dazzling turn resists and complicates it: Cléo has too much dimensionality and agency to be reduced to a representation. The considerable power of “Ama Gloria” lies not in its take on colonial conscience, nor even in its insights into the complex economical and emotional dynamics of the child-nanny bond. It is in its unmatched portrait of one brave little heart, bruised but learning to beat on its own, after the painful revelation that to love someone completely is to want to set them free — even if that means freeing them from your love.

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