FANTASIA16 REVIEW: The Eyes of My Mother [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 76 minutes | Release Date: November 18th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director(s): Nicolas Pesce
Writer(s): Nicolas Pesce

“Why would I kill you? You’re my only friend.”

This is isolation, suffering. It’s also normal. We on the outside see Nicolas Pesce‘s debut feature The Eyes of My Mother as the former, young Francisca (Olivia Bond) swimming in a pool of abject dread as death proves a natural evolution for all living things. For this girl, however, nothing depicted onscreen is wrong. Nothing is out-of-place. She’s the daughter of a former Portuguese surgeon, a mother (Diana Agostini) who was as much a guardian and teacher as she was a friend. They did everything together, including dissections. A cow’s eye showed Francisca both a glimpse into biology as a scientific imperative and the human soul as real. So when death comes knocking on their door, it comes unflinchingly and emotionless. Bodies may die, but spirits never disappear.

The film arrives in three chapters titled by that which will expire but not quite remove itself from Francisca’s life. First is “Mother,” the girl maybe ten years old and yet as methodical as a seasoned doctor holding sterilization and meticulous craft paramount to chaos. Second is “Father” introducing an older Franny (Kika Magalhaes) as the woman of the house, childlike in innocence and naiveté behind closed doors while intensely malevolent towards those outside. Her dead eyes and calm demeanor expose a psychopathy hinted at from the start, her attachment to the few living creatures in close proximity a deteriorating sense of love imbued from tragedy. Third is “Family,” a prediction of the future rebirth of Francisca as mother and nurturer. It’s a logical progression delivered as nightmare.

Her existence in youth was literally by her mother’s hip. They experimented, talked, and grew until a stranger seemingly peddling literature on an unknown cause (Will Brill‘s Charlie) enters from the road. Until his arrival Francisca saw death as necessity. Cows provided meat and cadavers for study—they sustained life through expiration. Charlie introduces an idea of randomness and pleasure, violence and murder as a consequence of desire rather than need. But death is unavoidable regardless; it’s accepted rather than lamented. Her father (Paul Nazak) shares this mindset, his dispatching of tragedy behind closed doors and how he tasks little Franny to do her part cleaning up displaying a terrifying strain of emotional ambivalence. This is a family of monsters unaware of the line that makes them so.

You can’t imagine how unnerving depravity can be when it arrives matter-of-factly instead of with glee. We’re used to serial killers going way past the definition of decency on their quests of glorification and notoriety, the more blood spilled the better. Similar to the recently canceled “Hannibal” on television, however, The Eyes of My Mother depicts its carnage as a subdued, ritualistic process. Besides the initial scene of joyous homicidal rage on behalf of Charlie that’s almost entirely shown off-screen (the slightest and briefest of imagery included so we understand circumstance and contrast motives), all other violence is acknowledged by its aftermath. Graphic acts aren’t excised completely, but those seen are from a position of caretaking. Mutilation is a means of protection, companionship the result of its serenity.

Francisca is lonely, the people she loves leaving her behind as the years pass. Without someone to explain the true finality of death she continues forth in mourning of physical connection while never severing that of the eternal. She has no God but the woman who taught her everything she knows. She understands how the body works and masterfully bends those of others to her will and satisfaction. When good things happen it’s by the power of her mother, everything Francisca craves and desires passing through a metaphysical prism for mom to witness and make real. This is a deranged soul devoid of the means to assimilate with the community at-large, her insulated life transforming her into ruler of her domain. What she takes isn’t stolen, it’s owed.

And how it all proceeds is scarily quiet. We’re unsure of what she might do next, Francisca’s complete indifference to life and death as common events like birthdays and promotions rendering her a wild card that cannot be predicted. Her only pain comes from being alone, the agony of that desolation driving her forward into situations she wouldn’t otherwise engage. There’s spirituality at play, a divine providence to keep her afloat with purpose. She enjoys her lot in life as servant and protector of those who love her. She cares for her father and dependents with unwavering strength. Eventually the time comes when she must dispatch of them, their danger outweighing utility. All Francisca wants is love, destiny providing its new form on request and deeper than ever.

There’s an obvious correlation in style to the static long shots of silent anticipation from Under the Skin and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, visual style providing destruction a mask of beauty similar to Magalhaes’ Francisca. If you look beyond its nightmarish acts Pesce’s film is that of a sheltered woman coming into her own. It’s as if the filmmaker grew up in an Amish community, rejecting its alienating qualities while seeking an escape through psychological horror now appropriated through that lens. This self-sufficient family has never relied on outsiders, a tradition passed down in as warped and depraved a way possible to Francisca’s lone descendant. It’s up to her to re-manufacture that nucleus, her tools snatching new love from death rather than creating from life.

[1] A scene from THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
[2] Kika Magalhaes in THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
[3] A scene from THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a Magnet Release. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

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