Ama Gloria – a feat of intimate storytelling from director Marie Amachoukeli

words Jake Munn

Ama Gloria, the solo debut from French director Marie Amachoukeli and opening film of Cannes Critics’ Week 2023, offers a touching and deeply personal tale exploring the nanny-child bond through the eyes of Cleo, its six-year-old protagonist portrayed by Louise Mauroy-Panzani in what is perhaps one of the most mesmeric debut child performances in recent memory. Through her vulnerability, her love, loss and confusion, we experience the hard road of growing up in the face of maternal absence and how both she and her nanny, Gloria, are forced to navigate an untimely emancipation from each other.

Ama Gloria film 2024

Told from a tight perspective interwoven with intimate, hand-painted epigraphs to each act, our story begins in Paris as Gloria, (debutant Ilça Moreno Zego,) receives the news that her mother has unexpectedly passed away. She returns to her homeland of Cape Verde, promising to Cleo that she can come and visit her in the holidays. As Cleo watches Gloria depart from her bedroom window and her tears begin to fall, we feel the gulf of that absence intensely. This is a void that weighs heavily on her; it’s a testament to both Amchoukeli’s skill and Louise Mauroy-Panzani’s performance that the emotional stakes are established so early on in the film. But therein lies the rub: when you pay for love, is it real? This caveat lingers over the first act, raising questions around the theme of economic colonialism, a harsh reality for many and one that Amachoukeli was keen to explore.

Cleo’s well-meaning, struggling father, portrayed with affable sincerity by Arnaud Rebotini, accepts Gloria’s proposition and before long Cleo is reunited with Gloria in a country in stark contrast to her own. As she experiences a reckoning with the other members of Gloria’s family, including her contemptuous son, Cesar, (Fredy Gomes Tavares,) who sees Cleo as nothing more than a rival and the person who stole his mother away, we’re introduced to Gloria’s many fractious roles as a matriarch of her society, which also includes the building of a half-finished hotel. Her daughter, Fernanda, (Abnara Gomes Varela) gives birth to a baby boy, and as Gloria comes to terms with being a grandmother, Cleo rejects the child, and this interruption to the status quo sets us up for an emotional final act where all parties are forced to reconcile the terms of their relationships in a nuanced and wholly believable way.

Ama Gloria Marie Amachoukeli

New life followed by death was a clever narrative decision, symbolic and used to offer the characters a way forward in the final act. This time, as Cleo departs, it’s Gloria’s out of character, private expression of despair that adds the welcome emotional gravity to our end scene, and, whilst the future seems uncertain for both, we are left with the satisfaction that not only is there hope, but they will forever be a part of each other’s lives.

Amachoukeli, who based the film on her own experiences as someone who grew up with a nanny, is keen to immerse us in something beyond cinematic realism; Cleo is very much our eyes and ears, and from the beginning we’re side by side with her in tight close-ups, a cinematic choice employed throughout and never better than when we are exposed to the minuite of the pair’s everyday routines. Whether visiting the opticians or attending Gloria’s mother’s funeral, the intimate camerawork pulls us in close enough so that we can almost read Cleo’s mind through her range of expressions. That’s not to say that Amachoukeli pays any less attention to the rest of her cast of characters; indeed, it’s impressively well balanced.

Ama Gloria movie

Even as we’re introduced to a contrasting landscape and culture, we’re never pulled out of Cleo’s immediate experiences. The setting of Cape Verde seen from Cleo’s perspective is stripped of romance, the tone focussing instead on its natural beauty, the wonder of alien customs as she assimilates into the community’s day-to-day goings on, so reflective of her life in Paris in a way that never feels displacing within the film’s tight 88-minute runtime.

Interspersing these moments are hand-painted animations that show us Cleo’s early memories and depictions of how Cleo imagines Gloria’s journey to Cape Verde. Marie Amachoukeli and animator Pierre-Emmanuel Lyet cite colourists Peter Doig and Félix Vallotton as references and succeed in realising the concept of a child’s imagination in abstract forms. These animations help to break up the film’s more monotonous moments, injecting some colour into what can, at times, feel like a bleak palate. But then, that very contrast is exactly what Amachoukeli seeks to present to us in every scene; whether to show the gulf of culture or familial relationships, there are common threads to spite all this which bind the characters to each other.

I was reminded of another recent film, Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela’s 2023 movie The Peasants, which used oil paintings as a render over live action cinematography to build drama and antiquity. Whilst different in style and handled sparingly in Ama Gloria, it no less serves the objective of bringing an uncertain dynamism to Cleo’s internal voice.

Ama Gloria is a feat of intimate storytelling, an introspective window into taboo themes spearheaded by a wealth of new talent. Amachoukeli has proven to be a self-assured director with a contemporary voice, understated in her approach and execution.

Ama Gloria is set for release on the 14h June 2024 through the BFI.

 

 

 

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