The beautiful thing about horror is its ever-shifting form. A heavy-metal gorevalanch like Deathgasm defines one extreme of the genre (raucous over-the-top fun), while A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (black-and-white, emotional arthouse) spans the opposite side of a wide-reaching spectrum. Horror can seep into any situation, like how first-time filmmaker Nicolas Pesce corrupts a child’s youth in his ever-haunting debut, The Eyes Of My Mother. Black and white? Check. Ominously forbidding and deeply disturbing? Oh yeah. Horror by way of arthouse exploration? You betcha. Hey, who said genre films can’t get experimental every now and then?
Pesce’s film follows the maturation of Francisca, a sweet country girl whose life is stricken by tragedy. At a young age (played by Olivia Bond), Francisca’s mother (Diana Agostini) was murdered as she sat in the room next-door. Her father (Paul Nazak) arrived home too late for a rescue, but caught the murderer mid-bludgeoning. This leads to the killer being chained-up in an outdoor barn, where Francisca patches his wounds and strikes a twisted friendship. Now, years later – after her father has passed as well – Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) struggles to cope with feelings of grief and a morbid curiosity brought on by her psychopathic companion (still alive in the barn). Francisca is just a lonely girl, but her only available comforts come from all the wrong channels…
Pesce satiates his experimental hunger in The Eyes Of My Mother by toying around with extreme minimalism. Black and white shading pushes performances front-and-center. Sparse dialogue puts a focus on emotion, tension and atmosphere. Modest settings and only a handful of characters highlight the essence of tainted youth. Every single one of Pesce’s decisions play into a streamlined experience that runs under 80 minutes, which ensures that “artistic freedom” never becomes overwhelming or reckless. Pesce aims to manifest a slowly-creeping sense of unshakable dread, and accomplishes this warped sensationalism through a creeping, deeply rooted destabilization of Francisca’s being.
Of course, Pesce’s visionary horror would be wasted without an enchanting lead from Kika Magalhaes – or the young Olivia Bond, for that matter. Magalhaes embodies a deranged adult punished by isolation and loneliness, but without Bond’s early acts of innocence, Magalhaes would have no comparison point. It’s much easier for an adult Francisca to carry on this ever-evolving deterioration of morality because Bond’s cutesy, American-girl establishing material gets the process started early-on.
But Magalhaes is nightmarish and spectacular, all in her own right. A switch flips in Francisca once her mother’s butcher (Charlie, played by Will Brill) becomes her “only friend.” She becomes obsessed with the euphoria of snuffing-out life, to the point where curiosity becomes more than just an imaginary feeling. As Magalhaes tumbles farther and farther down this sinister rabbit hole, her entire life becomes a concoction of dehumanized morality, violent acceptance and cold, callous selfishness – but is her her fault? A phenomenal performance from Ms. Magalhaes blends serial psychosis with a sympathetic feeling of heartbreak, creating this blurred “villain” who only does what she knows. And we say violence doesn’t affect our youth…
There’s a brooding tonal growth that Pesce is able to establish, as he unravels a film that becomes more horrific with each passing second. At the start, we’re introduced to a lovely little Midwestern-like family who owns cows, and talk about medical procedures (Francisca’s mother was an eye surgeon in Portugal) – but by the film’s end, we’re living out a hellish, familial clusterf*ck. Humans transform into monsters (by representation), dead bodies make their way into daily life and innocent blood is drained with calculated precision. Pesce never halts a twisted evolution that spins more and more out of control with each passing scene, while keeping an engaging pace that never jars or stumbles over road bumps. Only necessary evils are captured on camera – a hard-fast rule more filmmakers should stand by.
When you gaze into The Eyes Of My Mother, think about all the lives that could have been so different with fair growth circumstances. This is not a film about a vicious countryside slasher, but instead a poor woman’s unstable livelihood thanks to the most mangled upbringing any child could face. Wasted life, repercussions to someone else’s deviant actions, an empty existence filled with pain – these are the ingredients of real fear. True, everyday terror.
In the realm of horror, nothing sinks deeper than human tales that closely stay true-to-life, so don’t you dare try and tell me a prime example of such dark delusions like The Eyes Of My Mother doesn’t qualify as genre material. I can already see another The Witch debate beginning, which should stop before it starts.
The Eyes Of My Mother is a haunting take on being raised around violence and rings a bit louder due to recent current events.