Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Writer: Nicolas Pesce
Producer: Jacob Wasserman, Schuyler Weiss, Max Born
Stars: Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Flora Diaz, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong, Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond
A young woman isolated on a rural farm is slowly swallowed by madness as she struggles with understanding human connections.
An overall value assignment is mostly meaningless information in assessing “The Eyes of My Mother.” For everything a thumb or tomato can actually tell you, there may as well be a flipping coin icon instead of a number as its ‘Review Score’ rating.
Tarot cards, tealeaves, crystal balls, and Ouija boards have equal chance as anyone at accurately predicting how a given individual might respond to the movie. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce’s haunting horror portrait of a lonely woman oblivious to her simmering insanity is a blend of bleak, beautiful, brutal, and boring, capable of alternately mesmerizing or euthanizing your engagement. Which of these two outcomes most suits you depends on personal proclivity for the film’s unorthodox texture, as well as mindset and mood at the time of consumption.
Farm girl Francisca is raised by Portuguese parents in a remote country home where the outside world rarely infiltrates. On a day when it does, the family’s hermetic lifestyle takes a drastic turn, with Francisca forced to find unusual new ways of relating to Mother, Father, and an uninvited guest in the wake of unthinkable horror.
Francisca grows into adulthood to become a misunderstood monster. More accurately, she doesn’t understand that she has become one. Without a filter of normalcy to guide her grasp of human connection, Francisca’s mutated mind manifests as shockingly aberrant behavior. When Francisca tries reshaping her family from these nightmarish notions, the past that malformed her continues oppressing her outlook until isolation is no longer an option.
That summary is purposely oblique for good reason. It isn’t that “The Eyes of My Mother” is a twisty mystery demanding a hiss through an index finger for fear of spilling its secrets. Rather, the movie is a character-driven atmosphere exploration with such a straightforward path to plotting that divulging any detail can lay bare all the suspense in the story.
“The Eyes of My Mother” is a film built on the stage, not on the page. Its expressions are gestured through performance, characterization, and camera, as opposed to specific script structure or traditionally-told narrative. Its quietly chilling nightmare comes from nuance, an aesthetic most maddening for an audience anticipating entertainment more literal and linear.
For an “it’s like” analogy, think along lines of Lars von Trier, Lynch, even “The Witch” (review here) in a world of even less color. Dated cars and old movies on TV set an era as ambiguous as any other element on the screen. Though if you want to be technical by dismissing the likelihood of an unintentional anachronism, one woman wears Guess jeans, so it is at least the 1980s.
“The Eyes of My Mother” seeks to unsettle with subtlety as much as with challenging visceral cruelty. Jump cuts trust suspicious imaginations to think for themselves without necessitating time-passing montages or hand-holding exposition. This is but one technique in director Nicolas Pesce’s bag of theatrical tricks that strikes a disorienting chord of imbalance in keeping with the tone’s unusual timbre. While those wheels are at work, deliberately withheld details sow seeds of ongoing wonder regarding motivations behind Francisca’s mania, moving the movie more with your mind than through any other avenue.
As is often the case in such endeavors, “The Eyes of My Mother” insists you make of it what you will, including a choose-you-own-takeaway ending. But if you’re someone insistent on an “official” outcome, or at least the filmmakers’ take, lead actress Kika Magalhaes keyed into an idea of a cyclical narrative when asked about the ending at an AFI Fest Q&A. Thematically, it stands to reason that Antonio watched Francisca die just as Francisca witnessed her own mother’s murder.
Should you choose to dig even deeper into details the movie purposely doesn’t spell out, Magalhaes also mentioned that she and Pesce developed extensive backstories for Francisca and her family. Father likely had good reason not to summon authorities when Charlie murdered Mother. Consider for a moment that Antonio and Francisca’s origins may have much in common. Specifically, perhaps Francisca was not even her presumed parents’ child at all.
If what has already been said and not said has not been a clear clue, “The Eyes of My Mother” is cinematic coffee, for an uncouth comparison, appealing primarily to acquired tastes. I want desperately to not rely on the overused word “arthouse” as a descriptor, but figure it out for yourself: the movie is in black and white, told almost entirely through tone, and of the few words spoken, a fair portion of them are in Portuguese for an additional exotic flourish.
What one may find breathtaking, another might find burdensome. “The Eyes of My Mother” is arresting, affecting, and unlikely to evaporate quickly from the mind’s eye regardless of how it personally plays as art or as entertainment. Whether it will wet your own whistle for slowly smoldering chills, only you can judge in the end.
Review Score: 70