×

Film Review: ‘The Eyes of My Mother’

A Sundance Next standout, Nicolas Pesce's impressive, highly original horror fable is the stuff of very beautiful nightmares.

With:
Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Olivia Bond, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong, Flora Diaz, Diana Agostini. (English, Portuguese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5225338/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_1

Serial murder has rarely seemed a more melancholy calling than it does in “The Eyes of My Mother,” a short, decidedly unsweet and wholly startling vision from freshman writer-director Nicolas Pesce. Meshing an especially bloody strain of slasher pic with the most whispery of high-art sensibilities, this tale of a young Portuguese-American woman drawn — by way of misused heritage and scarring personal tragedy — into severely psychotic behavior reps an exquisite waking nightmare, its meticulous monochrome imagery caressing the eye even as the filmmaker brandishes a scalpel before it. A characteristically cold cut from the ever-exciting Borderline Films, this standout from Sundance’s Next program may, with its stretches of silent storytelling and fado-laced soundtrack, be a tad too lyrical for hard-horror fans, but a devoted cult audience awaits an adventurous distributor.

“Never go in the barn,” a woman solemnly warns her child midway through the film. It’s a line seemingly plucked from a fairy tale, and for all its very adult interlacing of sadism and sensuality, “The Eyes of My Mother” does maintain a child’s-eye view of threat as its protagonist comes of age. Pesce’s heartland Gothic visuals — specifically the very inky expanses of Zach Kuperstein’s glorious widescreen lensing — conjure spooked memories of Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter.” In early scenes, meanwhile, as protagonist Francisca is introduced in the girlhood form of striking newcomer Olivia Bond, it’s not just the young actress’s dark, concentrated gaze that recalls Ana Torrent in “The Spirit of the Beehive”; both films probe children’s repulsed fascination with the monstrous, though “Eyes” literalizes the terror in the barn rather more emphatically than Victor Erice’s 1973 classic.

Pesce plays a currently vogueish structural trick at the outset of the film, opening with an isolated fragment from a far later point in the action — though the flash-forward works effectively to further muddy the narrative’s hazy blurring of time and identity. Though the pic is neatly divided into three chapters — cryptically titled “Mother,” “Father” and “Family” — following its out-of-sync prologue, disorienting chronological leaps occur not just between but within them, with viewers left to assemble just what has come to pass in the unseen periods. Pesce’s spare script doesn’t seek to obscure, but its quiet, matter-of-fact handling of drastic dramatic events will catch some off-guard.

Francisca is introduced as a wide-eyed naif, in thrall to her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini) as she is taught the legend of Francis of Assissi — absorbing a message of gentle kindness to all creatures that is rather rudely contravened when Mom subsequently, and with notable sangfroid, shows her daughter how to dissect a cow’s eye on the kitchen table. (Ommetaphobes should be warned, if the title doesn’t tip them off, that they’re in for one of the squirmiest sits in a movie theater since Bunuel’s “Un chien andalou.”) We learn, in what turns out to be a salient detail, that Francisca’s mother was a surgeon in her homeland before taking up the life of a Midwestern farm wife. This already eerily tainted impression of bucolic childhood takes a significant turn for the worse when a wild-eyed stranger (Will Brill) turns up at the farmhouse and unceremoniously performs a vicious act of violence before the impressionable girl.

The film’s ensuing escalation of torture and trauma — seemingly stemming from this incident, though perhaps embedded more deeply in the protagonist’s personal history — shouldn’t be divulged in too much detail. It’s fair to say, however, that Francisca grows into a young woman (Portuguese thesp Kika Magalhaes, passively transfixing throughout) with an ingenue’s curiosity regarding the body and pansexual desire, and a brute streak that belies her outward innocence. Pesce ventures into upsetting extremes of human violation and suffering, though there’s enough complex psychological grounding even to the pic’s grisliest setpieces to fend off accusations of exploitation or torture porn. As played with supple, mournful grace by Magalhaes (a former dancer, imbuing the role with a kind of swaying, uncanny physicality), Francisca remains perversely sympathetic even through her most severely inscrutable of actions.

In a film that frequently places teasing emphasis on what lies just outside our sphere of knowledge or field of vision, Pesce and his superb d.p. are sure to make every image we do see count. There are individual frames here, whether of corpses milkily enveloped in a bathtub or blood-smeared fingerprints on a refrigerator door, that hover on the precipice of dreamscape, and may linger in that realm for some viewers long after watching. More than an artsy aesthetic gambit, the deep black-and-white contrasts of Kuperstein’s cinematography serve to suspend Pesce’s narrative in a reality that never seems completely defined.

Working toward the same goal are Sam Hensen’s rustic, cleverly era-fudging production design and a soundtrack built on radical sonic reversals: The buzzing synths and rattling winds of Ariel Loh’s alien-electro score segue most disarmingly into a selection of lush Portuguese fado ballads, steering viewers in and out of our anti-heroine’s warped perspective on the horror before her.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Eyes of My Mother'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 23, 2016. Running time: 76 MIN.

Production: A Borderline Films presentation of a Max Born production in association with Tandem Prods. (International sales: UTA, Los Angeles.) Produced by Max Born, Jacob Wasserman, Schuyler Weiss. Executive producers, Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Josh Mond, Julie Christeas, Avi Stern. Co-producers, Seth Blogier, Samuel R. Syrop. Co-executive producer, Adam Kersh.

Crew: Directed, written by Nicolas Pesce. Camera (B&W, widescreen), Zach Kuperstein; editors, Connor Sullivan, Pesce; music, Ariel Loh; production designer, Sam Hensen; art director, Caroline Keenan Russell; costume designer, Whitney Anne Adams; sound, Patrick Burgess; supervising sound editor, Michael A. H. Kurihara; re-recording mixer, Kurihara; visual effects artist, Brian Budak; stunt coordinator, Bobby Burns; associate producer, David Formentin; assistant director, Andreas O'Donahue Villaggio; casting, Stephanie Holbrook.

With: Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Olivia Bond, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong, Flora Diaz, Diana Agostini. (English, Portuguese dialogue)

More Film

  • Ready or Not Movie

    'Ready or Not,' 'Angel Has Fallen' Enter Box Office Race

    Three more contenders are joining what has lately been a hostile box office arena. Can anyone emerge from August victorious? Fox Searchlight’s “Ready or Not,” a black comedy about a diabolical game of hide-and-seek, will debut in 2,244 North American theaters on Wednesday. The low-budget film is expected to earn upwards of $6.5 million over [...]

  • Rules Don't Apply

    Warren Beatty and Arnon Milchan Settle Suit Over 'Rules Don't Apply' Flop

    Arnon Milchan and Warren Beatty have settled their two-year legal battle over the disastrous release of “Rules Don’t Apply,” Beatty’s period drama about Howard Hughes. Milchan’s attorneys have filed a notice with the court dismissing his suit against Beatty. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Milchan’s company, New Regency, sued Beatty and other investors [...]

  • Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro attends a

    Bolsonaro LGBTQI Outburst, Subsidy Freeze, Stirs Outrage

    Ramping up the drive into censorship in Brazil, its Minister of Citizenship, Omar Terra, has suspended a call for applications for governmental TV funding – until new criteria are established for its application. The country’s secretary for culture, Henrique Pires, who reports to Terra, has resigned in protest of the incentive freeze. The suspension, for [...]

  • Adam Brody'Ready or Not' film premiere,

    Adam Brody to Executive Produce, Star in 'The Kid Detective'

    “Ready or Not’s” Adam Brody has signed on to star in “The Kid Detective.” Sophie Nelisse will co-star in the dramedy from writer-director Evan Morgan. Brody will star as a once-celebrated kid detective, now 31, who continues to solve the same trivial mysteries between hangovers and bouts of self-pity until a 16-year-old client (Nelisse) brings [...]

  • Alita: Battle Angel VFX

    How Previsualization Helps Create Pitches for Projects Like 'Alita: Battle Angel'

    Filmmakers are increasingly using previsualization, a now-standard technique for planning highly technical shots and sequences, as a tool for pitching a project to production companies, investors and studio executives — before a single full scene has actually been shot. More creatives are relying on the technique, dubbed “pitchvis,” to fashion a compelling and engaging presentation [...]

  • Theo Von arrives at the Global

    Chris Pratt's 'Ghost Draft' Adds Comedian Theo Von

    Comedian Theo Von has boarded the sci-fi thriller “Ghost Draft” starring Chris Pratt. “Lego Batman” filmmaker Chris McKay is directing Skydance and Paramount’s upcoming film, which stars “Handmaid’s Tale” star Yvonne Strahovski alongside Pratt. J.K. Simmons and “GLOW’s” Betty Gilpin are also in talks to join the pic. Written by Zach Dean and Bill Dubuque, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content