Writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s monochromatic debut, The Eyes of My Mother is so beautiful, yet so hard to watch.
“Loneliness can do strange things to the mind” says a mother to her young daughter Francisca, who is the central focus of The Eyes of My Mother. It’s her loneliness mixed with her mother’s strict Catholicism and a brutal act of violence that will work together to imprison Francisca in a state of morbid curiosity. One that will drain the colour from the rest of her life and twist her perceptions of normalcy.
The film is split into three parts, all themed around the family unit. At first we’re introduced to Francisca’s mother, a Portuguese eye-surgeon, who teaches her daughter how to expertly dissect a cow’s eye. Moments later the mother is brutally slain by an American drifter in their own home. Then we’re introduced to her father, a quiet, practical man who, for the second part, is nothing more than a rigamortis stiffened corpse living with the grown-up Francisca. Then finally we meet another mother and her baby daughter, an encounter that leads Francisca into her most gruesome act of brutality. Francisca’s family unit will fall apart, mutate or reconfigure at various points, depending on which innocent victim comes anywhere near.
There’s an awful lot to admire in The Eyes of My Mother. It’s beautifully shot; expressionistic like a German silent horror. Whether it’s the gaslight silhouettes of Francisca and her father burying a corpse in the woods, or the mundane image of father and daughter sat watching television – it’s a monochromatic masterpiece. The score is equally evocative. At times delicate, at other times it’s drone perfected, as it constantly reverberates and wavers in an almost euphoric manner.
The major problem with The Eyes of My Mother is not just in its unrelenting grimness, but in its simplicity. The drifter who murdered her mother, and who is immediately taken down by her father, is kept alive for years by Francesca, chained up in a barn with his eyes removed. In an early scene, the young Francisca sits next to the killer and removes bits of broken glass from his wounds, questioning his motives. When the killer asks if she’ll kill him, Francisca replies, “Why would I kill you? You’re my only friend.” We don’t really get beyond that. Francisca’s stunted psyche is evident in the opening few scenes, and the grown up Francisca who now lives with some cows, her dad’s corpse and a chained up murderer, merely invokes Texas Chainsaw Massacre, rather than anything more pointed.
That being said, Kika Magalhaes is wonderful as Francisca, she’s full of wide-eyed naivety and morbid curiosity – even when murdering an innocent victim she looks innocent, even caring. Her sadness over her mother’s death is palpable.
But it’s during its harrowing final third, involving a mother and her baby daughter that the unrelenting awfulness of Francisca’s behaviour becomes so acute; almost unwatchable. The brief running time of The Eyes of My Mother is a mercy. You wouldn’t want to spend longer in Francisca’s world than absolutely necessary for fear you may never leave. 3.5/5
Please note, this review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage in October.