Àma Gloria: a tender portrayal of the complex bonds between children and the nannies that raise them

A six-year-old and her beloved Cape Verdean nanny are given one last summer to say goodbye in Marie Amachoukeli's moving drama.

Àma Gloria (2023)

Six-year-old Cléo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani) thrusts out her small hands and grabs hold of the metal monkey bars in front of her with confidence. When she slips, her nanny, Gloria (Ilça Moreno Zego), rushes to the rescue, blowing gently on her grazed palms. Cléo knows that if she falls, she will be scooped up.

The French writer and director Marie Amachoukeli shows the grief involved in growing up in this subtle drama about the bond between a child and her caregiver. Cléo is bright, spirited and curious, qualities that have been nurtured by the attentive Gloria, who is paid for the trouble. Amachoukeli is wise to the loving force – and labour – behind this little girl’s zest for life. As she depicts it, mothering is not simply instinct: it is an art.

Cléo and her widower father Arnaud (Arnaud Rebotini) live in Paris, with Gloria, who makes the decision to return to her native Cape Verde in the wake of her own mother’s death. As she looks out of her bedroom window and watches Gloria disappear from view for the very last time, Cléo’s world briefly crumbles.

But there is a bright spark in the near future: it is agreed that she will visit Gloria, and spend one last summer with her. In Cape Verde, she takes in black sand and towering cliffs, as well as the reality of Gloria’s two children, Nanda (Abnara Gomes Varela) and César (Fredy Gomes Tavares). The older, heavily pregnant Nanda is polite but mostly indifferent to Cléo’s presence, but the younger, sulkier César treats her with suspicion. “It’s weird for me,” Cléo tells Gloria in private, “because I only have memories of you.”

Amachoukeli has said that she drew on her personal memories of her Portuguese nanny when writing the film’s screenplay, which honours the complexity of its central relationship. The camera notices what Cléo does, taking in Gloria’s rainbow nail polish and gold whale necklace, evocative details that feel remembered from childhood. The film adopts Cléo’s point of view and so her joy, confusion and heartbreak are centred and taken seriously. The young Mauroy-Panzani is impressive as a little girl unable to hide her feelings and the thick plastic spectacles she wears only add to her vulnerability.

Louise Mauroy-Panzani as Cléo and Ilça Moreno Zego as Gloria in Àma Gloria (2023)Lilies Films

Delighted to be back in Gloria’s arms, Cléo finds it hard to cope with the fact she doesn’t have her full attention. Gloria’s time is divided between Nanda, her new grandson, the man she’s seeing and the hotel she’s renovating, and so Cléo begins to lash out. “That’s my song!” she says, glowering as Gloria sings the new baby a lullaby and praying darkly for his downfall. While her adoration for Gloria is presented as pure, Amachoukeli is keenly aware of the way it betrays an entitlement, too.

Circumstance has forced Gloria’s children to become independent in her absence. César cooks his own dinner (and Cléo’s) while Gloria drives his sister to the hospital. “I don’t even know her,” he says about his mother to a friend.

As the family crowd around a fire pit eating grouper, it’s also noteworthy that Cléo is the only white face. Amachoukeli shows rather than tells that in Gloria’s country, a former colony, power works differently, that she is not simply there to serve Cléo, as the child has learned. If Cléo is naive about this, Amachoukeli is not, though she handles the racial dynamics of the film with a lightness of touch.

Tender close-ups of Gloria washing Cléo’s curls and tucking her pudgy feet into bed convey genuine maternal affection. She tells a friend of hers that she raised Cléo – that she’s like a daughter to her – and waving goodbye to her for the last time, Gloria releases a howl. Moreno Zego’s face exquisitely articulates grief, longing, tenderness and guilt.

The film is embellished with brief, animated interludes, such as an animated volcano, pink rock whooshing turquoise lava. Hand-painted figures that appear are faceless outlines, rendered in broad, expressionist brushstrokes; like Cléo’s emotions, they are colourful, intense, and unwieldy. When she touches Nanda’s pregnant belly, it prompts an animated sequence that transports us to an image of Cléo as a baby, taking her first steps.

The glittering expanse of the ocean is never far from view; as with growing up, Cléo will have to eventually let go of her fear and dive in. After she first arrives in Cape Verde, she looks out at a palm tree from her bedroom window, mosquito netting obscuring the view. When Amachoukeli repeats the shot towards the end of the film, it’s clear, and in vivid colour.

► Àma Gloria is in UK cinemas now.