Originally published on October 26, 2016. The Eyes of My Mother is now available on U.S. Netflix Instant streaming.
Overview: After witnessing an act of brutal violence, a young woman deals with her trauma and isolation with creative and depraved methods. Magnet Releasing; 2016; Rated R; 76 minutes.
Open Eyes: Shot in stunning black and white, The Eyes of My Mother is a gorgeous looking film that has the added benefit of muting the inevitable gore. Nicolas Pesce’s directorial debut challenges the audience with timelines that expect you to keep up with them and choices that ask you to suspend your disbelief. Split into three parts – Mother, Father, and Family – viewers watch helplessly as a family struggles to deal with a waking nightmare. With a twist of irony, it’s best to view this one as blind as possible.
St. Francis: Young Francisca (Olivia Bond) takes after her mother (Diana Agostini) with a natural curiosity towards the human body. Assisting her mother with practice surgery on the farm animals, she is never afraid and never squeamish. When a stranger appears, she is forced to watch her mother’s murder and subsequently clean up the mess. These childhood experiences, combined with isolation and neglect, inform her ability to do what she does for the rest of the film: anything she can to prevent that same loss and grief that was out of her control.
Kika Magalhaes gives an incredible performance as adult Francisca. As the years pass by, she slips into Mother’s role without incident. She demonstrates a quiet and evenly broken mind that betrays her only when succumbing to desperate loneliness. Wide-eyed and curious, she looks at and touches people like specimens. She moves like a dancer across the screen, performing her rituals with the perfect balance of calm intensity. Whether she is socially awkward, miming natural human interaction or washing a broken body, she does it with a sad and haunting grace.
Loneliness and The Mind: Pesce succeeds in drawing out a profound empathy for every character on screen—victim or killer—no matter how heinous their acts. Though her presence is short, due to Mother’s transplant into rural USA from her home country of Portugal, a painfully missing cultural connection is evident. Father’s stoic neglect of his daughter is infuriating until we see him in a vulnerable moment. Even the monster who sets the story in motion begs the viewer’s sympathy when we ask “what is justice?” Francisca’s loneliness and despair is heartbreaking even when she goes to extremes to quell the storm. Even though her actions never seem to cause her distress, she consistently breaks open under the weight of solitude. Her quietly violent struggle is devastating. Given the subject matter, it’s impressive that something so ugly can be so moving.
It Feels Amazing: Beyond being a mirror of basic human experience, as everyone identifies with loneliness, The Eyes of My Mother contains truly terrifying moments. It’s not just the eye cutting scene (reminiscent of that famous scene in Un Chien Andalou) that caused the audience to squirm, parts of the film feel like a waking nightmare—the kind where you scream and nothing comes out. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein uses clever juxtaposition with beauty and disgust, and quick cuts in editing show us pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. No matter the content, the dark beauty of this film is touching. The heightened emotional ending will leave some viewers frustrated; it comes quicker than you think and leaves you at the top wishing for a release.
The music in this film must also be noted. Sound designer Ariel Loh sets the mood by employing the use of Fado, also known as the “Portuguese Blues.” These moments are intermittent and powerful, as Francisca reconnects with her heritage and through this her family. Most notable is the use of the famous 1987 song Com Que Voz by Amália Rodrigues. Elsewhere, the sound design is heavy, adding to the emotional and terrifying weight of the film. Footfalls seem heavier, bodies seem juicier, and chains somehow tighter.
Overall: The Eyes of My Mother is a work of art that will be appreciated by genre fans and arthouse aficionados. Pesce’s debut leaves high hopes for a promising career in filmmaking that excites and inspires. His understanding of human emotion and Magalhaes’ ability to portray it is powerful and a reason the film will likely make—and deserve—several “best of” lists in its time. At the very least, it remains in the mind long after viewing.
Featured Image: Magnet Releasing