Film Review: The Eyes of My Mother

Isolated and scarred by terrible memories, a young woman descends into a nightmare of violence in this stylish black-and-white movie aimed at the (admittedly small) art/horror market.
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Divided into three chapters titled "Mother," "Father" and "Family," The Eyes of My Mother begins with pretty little Francisca (Olivia Bond), who lives with her Portuguese-born parents on an isolated American farm, picking wildflowers with her mother (Diana Agostini). Once a surgeon in Europe but now demoted to kitchen gardening and housekeeping, she gently tells her daughter about St. Francis of Assisi, the lover of animals, and encourages her to look for the good in people while also teaching her to appreciate the rigorous beauty of nature by dissecting cow's eyes.

Francisca's childhood ends when feral drifter Charlie (Will Brill) stops by while her father (Paul Nazak) is away running errands; when Father returns, his wife is dead. Rather than go to the police, he buries her and imprisons her killer in the barn. Young Francisca grows up tending to the chained man in the same gently detached way she looks after the family cattle.

To say much more about the film's plot is neither necessary nor fair to viewers: The dark spell woven by first-time writer-director Nicolas Pesce doesn't depend on surprise, but not knowing every twist in advance makes viewing it a more unnerving experience. That said, ultimately The Eyes of My Mother is less about story than it's about icily suffocating atmosphere and perfectly pitched performances... make that performance, because the film lives or dies largely on the efforts of Kika Magalhaes' turn as the adult Francisca.

Brazilian-born Portuguese actress Magalhaes, an acclaimed dancer-choreographer, brings a vivid yet subdued physicality to her dialogue-light role and is more than matched by the theatre-trained Brill, whose far less sympathetic character could easily have been played as a one-note beast. That Brill imbues him with a degraded yet undeniable humanity is easily one of—but not the—most disturbing things about Nicolas' film. Cinematographer Zach Kuperstein's cinematography is also exceptional—the film is full of grotesquely haunting images, crisply photographed in shades of grey—and the soundtrack, which features haunting fados  (traditional Portuguese ballads), is subtly unnerving.

There's more than a hint of the classic, doom-haunted The Night of the Hunter to the proceedings, but The Eyes of My Mother has its own soft, insinuatingly creepy voice. It's unlikely to speak to the mainstream horror buffs who eagerly embrace reboots of ’80s Jason/Freddy/Michael Myers movies, but more adventurous horror fans would do well to listen.

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