When someone asks me — casually, not looking for an in–depth analysis — how I feel about a film, I try to keep my answer pretty simple. “It was good, and I enjoyed it.” Or perhaps, “It was a flaming garbage fire. I’ll never get that time back.”
But when it comes down to Nicolas Pesce’s 2016 directorial debut, The Eyes of My Mother, I am physically unable to answer that question casually.
Shot entirely in black and white, this macabre arthouse horror film tells the story of young Francisca (Kika Magalhaes, Olivia Bond as a child) who was raised by her mother — a Portuguese eye surgeon (Diana Agostini) with an affinity for dissecting cow eyes at kitchen tables for mother-daughter bonding — and her father (Paul Nazak) in some removed part of the US.
The film opens, and we are a single truck driver rolling along a remote two–lane highway. Subjectively gazing through the driver’s side windshield, the picture of a long–haired woman in chains standing in the middle of the road becomes clearer and clearer to us as our truck approaches. We’re pulled from behind the driver’s eyes when the camera cuts to a third-party’s perspective from the far side of the road.
From those very first moments, we’re immediately wary of what’s to come. But it’s the appearance of a traveling salesman a few minutes later, who happens upon Francisca and her mother at home alone, that serves as the catalyst for the film’s descension into the truly terrible.
We continue to watch Francisca grow older in her isolation. We flit between disgust, sympathy, blame, frustration — all with an enduring and underlying feeling of the deepest repulsion. Perhaps you’re left feeling relieved at the end. Perhaps that relief is empty.
Whatever you feel, it’s certain to stick with you, though you certainly would rather it didn’t.
Remarkable to me is that descriptive traits with normally negative connotations in the realm of film criticism actually serve Eyes quite positively. The pacing, for example, as a whole and through each of its three chapters individually is slow. But not in a way that denotes lethargy or bumbling. Instead, the pacing is measured. It’s calculated. It’s unsettling, painfully drawn out, and perfect.
With a limited budget and only 18 days over which to shoot, Eyes makes up for the bigger studio releases’ purchased flash with genuinely good cinematography. Achingly beautiful shot compositions framing devastating subjects dwell on screen for seemingly eternal moments, filling that deep and dark pit of your stomach with sinking dread.
Sure, most films aren’t entirely untouched by fault, and Eyes is not quite a perfect escapee. For one, it ends all too suddenly, and the full stop is jarring — especially when juxtaposed with the rest of the film, which is intent on making you sit in its uncomfortable, lukewarm-bath-like circumstances long after your skin has started to prune.
Still, The Eyes of My Mother is very impressive, especially when considering the barely 27 years Nicolas Pesce has inhabited this planet. I, for one, am looking forward to what he does next — though, perhaps not quite eagerly.