A shocking, violent act causes a young girl’s life to develop in profoundly disturbing ways in this incredibly assured and powerful debut from writer-director Nicolas Pesce, which played at Fantasia Film Festival earlier this week. Beautifully shot in crisp black and white, The Eyes Of My Mother deftly combines sharp, shocking moments of horror, skin-crawling discomfort, and the surprisingly emotional journey of a damaged woman.
Young Francisca lives with her parents in an isolated house near the woods. Her mother is a Catholic surgeon, whose stories about St Francis and the importance of eyes are interrupted when a stranger (the hypnotically creepy Will Brill) arrives at their home while her husband is out and brutally murders her. The father returns home, and the way in which the murderous intruder is handled is the first step on a dark path for Francisca.
The striking cinematography is what will hit you first, and it plays into an unnerving mood that carries throughout. This feels like an uncertain time and place, while the film is caught somewhere between a Grimms fairytale, Polanski-esque unease and Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs.
The comparison to that French extreme horror film is more to do with the searing images of captive men and women than any gore content; Pesce is actually very restrained with what he shows in terms of blood and guts. Instead, we get unforgettable and chilling moments, such as a corpse being lowered into a bath to be cleaned, or a quick cut from a situation on the verge of violence to Francisca cleaning blood from the kitchen floor.
Kika Magalhaes is brilliant in the lead role, beautifully serene and almost passive (until she’s not), and the film somehow manages to make this character almost sympathetic. By refusing to break from Franscisca’s perspective for the vast majority of the running time, we’re there with her as she desperately searches for some kind of belonging or connection, either with a partner, friend or new family member. Her methods are brutal and terrifying, but the beautiful cinematography, assured performances and excellent soundtrack create an uneasy but compelling atmosphere in which it’s very difficult to look away, even when we know that something awful must be about to happen.
The deliberate pacing will put some viewers off (even though it’s less than 80 minutes), and some may complain that it’s a little hollow, but as a cinematic experience, this is truly impressive, and it will stay with you.