Movie Review: The Eyes of My Mother
(dir. Nicolas Pesce, 2016)
Francisca (Olivia Bond), a young girl, lives with her parents on an isolated farm. Her mother (Diana Agostini), once a practicing surgeon in her native Portugal, instructs the girl in both the spiritual and scientific marvels of nature, encapsulated by the devoted veneration of her namesake Saint Francis. Francisca’s taciturn father (Paul Nazak), while not outwardly cruel, appears to suffer from an excess of rural repression. Horrible tragedy befalls the family one day, at the hands of a leering drifter named Charlie (Will Brill). Nicolas Pesce’s debut film The Eyes of My Mother moves this far down a predictable genre path, and no farther.
Following the emotional example of her family unit, Francisca confronts her trauma with unnerving dispassion, and even a certain scholarly interest. Rather than cope with her grief, she embarks on a study of its causes. Faced with the human capacity for senseless brutality, she notes both its devastating effect and its prurient allure. She accepts both in the spirit of education, an ironic perversion of the intellectual curiosity her mother imparted with the best of intentions. Gradually, in subtle glimpses of her life, the film reveals Francisca as a perfect storm of love, fear, clinical stoicism and spiritual hunger. Each of these qualities, we learn, is marked by the ugliness life has dealt her. Privately she burns with humanity, but within her may also lurk sufficient inhumanity to cancel it out.
Outwardly, Francisca grows into a lovely young woman (Kika Magalhães). She carries herself in a near-constant attitude of birdlike observation. Only in utter solitude and darkness does her demeanor slip to show the true ruin that loneliness and horror have made of her. From minute to minute the film invites its audience to ache with sympathy, tremble with revulsion, and sometimes do both at once.
The Eyes of My Mother is a short and, at least in its formal construction, a simple film. Discussing individual scenes out of context might do them disservice. A somber black-and-white palette, an understated narrative pace, and frequent ellipses in action mask intermittent moments of pure, soul-scorching horror. As the story progresses, less is implied and more is shown of Francisca's dreadful secrets. Her sporadic interactions with the world outside are sincere efforts to know love and fulfillment in the eyes of others. Even so, each desperate act yields more hideous results than the last, tightening the confinement of her arguably doomed existence. Francisca is, without doubt, a monster. It is fair to say that she was made into one, but at such a crucial stage of her formation that it may be inseparable from her nature. The psychological points of escape, moments where she might turn aside and spare herself a monster’s fate, are never certain until they have passed.
The film’s chief dramatic question seems to be whether Francisca will be able to touch another life without turning it monstrous as well. Again, be aware. This is a horror movie, and a savage one. It is often beautiful, occasionally even tender, but no less harrowing for that. Personal sensitivity to depictions of physical and emotional suffering may face hard tests. The rewards of such an ordeal are the promise of explosive catharsis and the pleasure of sharp, economical drama presented for its own sake.