There are certain sweet spots a movie can hit for me to fall for it almost immediately. I have no clear understanding of why these traits hit me harder than others, but if a genre film plays like a tragedy that details what happens when a family implodes under evil circumstances—be it supernatural or realistic, I get right on board with it. Is the protagonist a child who has to deal with ineffectual or abusive parents? Even better. Is the ineffectual/abusive parent given shading that leaves the audience uncomfortable because they understand them? Give me more! Movies like IT’S ALIVE, DEAD RINGERS, THE BABADOOK, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, ROLLING THUNDER, THE BROOD, and BLUE RUIN scratched my itch for such horror-tinged, slow motion tragedies and now I add THE EYES OF MY MOTHER to that list of brutal, violent, soul-bruising favorites.
Shot in crisp black and white that gives it the feel of a film out of time and place, it is a nightmare that unfolds at a deceptively slow pace but still manages to cover several years in the life of Francisca (played as a child by Olivia Bond and as an adult by Kika Magalhaes). Growing up in an isolated farmhouse with only her mother (Diana Agostini) and father (Paul Nazak) for company, it is clear that she is stuck in a lonely, unhealthy existence. Her mother is a Portuguese immigrant who was an eye surgeon before marrying and moving to the United States. She teaches Francisca about anatomy, how to do basic surgery, and how eyes work by dissecting a cow’s head on the kitchen table as though it were perfectly normal behavior. Francisca’s father is largely silent and simply watches his wife and daughter interact with each other. Not once is Francisca shown going to school or interacting with anyone other than her parents.
Needless to say, things are off kilter in the family even before a creepy stranger (Will Brill) shows up at their house and brutally murders Francisca’s mother. This sets into motion a series of events that resonate into Francisca’s early 20’s as she remains in her farmhouse, lonely and growing more desperate by the day.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is the first feature film by writer/director Nicolas Pesce. It is the sort of stunning debut that should make filmmakers with decades of experience jealous that they have not reached his level of storytelling craft. Clocking in at a little less than eighty minutes, the film both takes its time and is swift in how it creates a tragic character study of the sad, lonely, and insane Francisca.
Pesce brings viewers uncomfortably close to Francisca, forcing them to watch as she grows from an impressionable child to a confused, dangerous woman. In many ways, the film is like witnessing the sort of traumatic childhood and eventual break with reality that leads to a character like Norman Bates. But where PSYCHO picked up with Norman well beyond his point of no return, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER patiently watches as Francisca walks steadily to her own destiny. Ruined by a warped childhood and desperate to cling to her dead mother, it does not seem much of a leap to assume Pesce was referencing Hitchcock’s film with its black and white cinematography and storyline.
But Pesce makes the audience feel so much more sympathy for Francisca than Hitchcock did Norman just by letting us see the psychological damage she goes through and by leaving some uncomfortable questions unanswered (Why does her father react to her mother’s murder the way he does? What exactly went on in the home for the rest of Francisca’s childhood after her mother died? Were here parents even really her parents? Do we even want to know?). Like all great horror filmmakers, Pesce recognizes that the scariest people and situations are the ones we relate to and understand, only to realize too late that something went completely wrong and the innocent will pay the price. It is a chilling lesson in a horrific film that I will not soon be able to shake.