As a horror fan, I have to sift through heaps of remakes, reboots, sequels, and straight up bad films to find the gems that make me love this genre. The Eyes of My Mother is one of those gems. As I made my way into the big apple to see this film, cramped in among the morning commuters on the LIRR, I couldn’t help but hype it up in my mind. Fortunately, these high expectations were met and easily surpassed. This film has an uncommonly short runtime of only an hour and sixteen minutes, but utilizes its disturbing and deeply unsettling tone to make the viewing experience feel double that. When the lights went down in the theater I took out a pen and paper, intent on taking notes throughout; but ended up clutching my notebook and chewing my pen for the duration of the film, unable to look away.
The Eyes of My Mother is the impressively original debut of 26-year-old director Nicolas Pesce, who wrote, directed, and edited the film. The tone that’s present throughout this film is as unflinching and stone-faced as its dark protagonist, Francisca (Kika Magalhaes). Broken into three parts, the story opens on Francisca as a young girl, learning from her mother about the removal of eyes, as performed on their cattle. From this point on, it’s difficult to talk about plot without including some spoilers, so I’ll keep my discussion of the plot brief. The Eyes of My Mother is the story of Francisca’s coming-of-age as well as the strange circumstances surrounding her upbringing and how they come to create her deeply disturbed character. Through Pesce’s extensive characterization of Francisca, comparable to that of the children in Dogtooth (2009), as well as Magalhaes’ compelling performance, they create a deeply complex and refreshingly original protagonist.
In many ways, The Eyes of My Mother can be described by a string of contradictions. It’s both intimate and detached, raw and refined, beautiful and disturbing. It couples absolutely stunning cinematography, made more beautiful by its black and white format, with deeply unsettling and even disgusting situations and subject matter. However, in many scenarios Pesce uses a ‘less is more’ approach, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. When it’s necessary, he’ll show you enough, and when it’s not, he’ll keep you in the dark. In addition to visuals, the use of silence contrasted with disgusting sound effects that are both repetitive and elongated, as well as dramatic pieces of score that are scattered throughout, makes for an engaging and unsettling audial experience. There was one scene in particular where the sound of a character’s heavy breathing was used much in the same way as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which made me momentarily giddy.
This film is ultimately impressive and engaging in all aspects, from its brilliantly talented cast to its beautiful and horrifying cinematography. It is an unflinching, unrelenting journey of deep discomfort and heart-pounding anxiety. Nicolas Pesce makes a tremendous debut with this film, and I have only excitement for what he will have in store for us in the future. I highly recommend seeing this film and even more highly recommend that you bring a stress ball to squeeze throughout.