The Eyes of My Mother, the chilling debut feature from filmmaker Nicolas Pesce, is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea even if you’re a horror fan. It’s uniquely unnerving and boundary pushing, but also curiously restrained, austere, and obtuse. It blends shocking moments with a slowly mounting menace that will probably annoy or offend as many people as it sucks in. I quite like the vibe of The Eyes of My Mother, but this is the kind of film where the phrase “your mileage may vary” definitively applies.
Writer-director Pesce spins a well structured, three act, rural American yarn that’s almost all plot and character and hard to talk about without spoiling since the whole thing is delivered in a tight, economical 72 minute package that doesn’t waste any time or breath. In some ways, and as the title suggests, it’s a story about different generations within the same family, but in others it’s a much more literal allegory. The story is easy to explain, but once you start explaining it, you risk spoiling it, as if one were trying to sum up one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in just a couple of sentences.
Young Francisca (Olivia Bond) is a little girl growing up in the countryside alongside her hard working blue collar father (Paul Nazak) and her ocular surgeon mother (Diana Agostini). Francisca’s life is changed one day by the arrival of a psychotic madman (Will Brill) to their home. What happens on that fateful day will twist and shape the person that Francisca becomes as an adult (played by Kika Magalhaes with eerie aplomb).
That’s all I’m really tempted to say about this one. To say more than that is to give away everything entirely, and since there’s not much to give away I’d rather cut it all short than spoil it. Early on, Pesce’s metaphor about eyes acting as gateways to the soul and psyche is pretty obvious, but not much else in The Eyes of My Mother comes off so simply. The story is often so unpredictable that it could lift some more squeamish audience members over some of the tougher material and keep them enthralled. There’s also a really interesting, but unspoken through-line about how Francisca’s Portuguese family looks back on their heritage. For a pulpy, austere chiller, there’s lots of subtext in Pesce’s stripped down approach.
Shooting in chilly looking black and white and only employing Ariel Loh’s haunting piano and electronic score sparingly, Pesce packs as much as he can into an unassuming package. This is a story that has been purposefully stripped to the bone so only the most substantive portions remain. Pesce comes across not as a first time feature director, but as someone who knows precisely what they are doing and exactly how long they can sustain their film. For a debut feature, it’s remarkably accomplished and nuanced, despite the material’s propensity for pressing the audience’s moral buttons.
The overall evocation one senses while watching The Eyes of My Mother is sleazy grindhouse horror by way of European expressionism, but not in the same way that someone like Drive and Only God Forgives director would interpret such material. Pesce is more enamoured with Rhomer, Godard, and Nicholas Ray than 42nd Street eurosleaze. The Eyes of My Mother is about story, mood, tension, and character more than shock value. The ultimate result is a film that’s consistently shocking, entrancing, and in many ways unforgettable. It’s just not something a lot of people will want to revisit, and in some cases they won’t want to visit it at all. It’s a “take it or leave it” experience, and to Pesce’s infinite credit as a filmmaker, he seems totally fine with it.
The Eyes of My Mother opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, December 16, 2016.
Check out the trailer for The Eyes of My Mother: