There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in horror tone poem The Eyes of My Mother, but what’s said adds color to the eerie black-and-white imagery. Specifically early on when the mother of young Francisca (Olivia Bond) tells her, “Loneliness can do strange things to the mind.” Shortly thereafter, as they slice open a cow’s eye on the kitchen table of their isolated farmhouse, she imparts, “Everything we see passes through this.” These bits of wisdom economically set the mood for a descent into madness and the collateral damage it causes.
One day while dad is off at work, mother (Diana Agostini, looking like a walking skeleton with black eyes that suggest a tortured past) and daughter are visited on their secluded acreage by weirdo Charlie (Will Brill). An act of depravity further warps Francisca and she begins a macabre ritual. Jumping forward in time, we’re introduced to Francisca (now Kika Magalhaes) as a young woman who looks mannered, but that’s just a cold façade that hides psychosis. Loneliness, and trauma, have indeed done strange things to her mind, and she grows increasingly desperate to feel connected to someone. Her methods to achieve that feeling become more and more extreme.
Broken into three titled chapters over a tight 77 minutes, The Eyes of My Mother tracks the course of events over several years impressionistically while prioritizing mood and meaning over gore. Make no mistake, those with weak stomachs will have several twinges of discomfort, but writer/director Nicolas Pesce makes what we don’t see just as important as what we do. He shows a great deal of restraint in his debut feature. There are three extraordinarily disturbing things that happen in the same bathtub, and the most intrinsically violent misdeed is the easiest to watch. Everything we see may pass through our eyes, but the gaps filled in by our minds make it all more deeply horrific. Mother wasn’t completely correct.
Adding to the atmosphere are the stark, monochrome cinematography by Zach Kuperstein and the dreamy, portentous tones of Ariel Loh’s score. The setting – a middle of nowhere farm where the “nowhere” is never specified – also contributes to the conceptual nature of the material. It’s the artistry, not the action nor blunt scripting, that drives the thematic narrative and saves the film from relying too heavily on its more exploitative elements. Those two things do work together beautifully on several occasions, however, including a slow walk down a highway that is simultaneously upsetting and oddly lyrical. It’s like an ethereal nightmare come to life.
Similarly, in a more abstract way, Francisca’s deep-rooted anxiety and neurosis become more manifest as her exploits multiply. She doesn’t so much have an arc as she has a drawn-out breakdown that’s part of something larger. There’s no doubt her mother had harrowing stories to tell, and the ending more than suggests a cycle of lunacy is bound to continue. Magalhaes never overplays anything and her performance is all the more chilling because of it. Rare moments of heightened panic are quickly bottled by projecting outward solemnity, making the monster inside scarier.
All characters, including Francisca, are representative of fears we all have – inescapable disturbances to our norm, adjusting in a cruel world, being insignificant, and, of course, solitude. The Eyes of My Mother unnerves by tapping into the primordial and it sticks in the psyche long after the final frame.