THE EYES OF MY MOTHER enjoyed its UK premiere at the 60th London Film Festival on October 9th. We were fortunate enough to be forwarded an online screener for the film to mark its screening and ahead of its DVD release - scheduled for March next year.
The film, the feature debut of from former music video director Nicolas Pesce, certainly is a beguiling one.
Following a flash-forward opening which I shan't spoil here, we're transported back to the story's beginning: we're on a remote farmhouse in Cooperstown, New York, with young Francisca (Olivia Bond), her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini) and almost silent, expressionless father (Paul Nazak).
One afternoon while the father is out, a stranger happens upon their home. He introduces himself as Charlie (Will Brill) and asks when the man of the house will be back. Uneasy with his presence, the mother insists her husband is due at any moment and suggests that Charlie leave. But he asks, very politely, if he may use their toilet first. Reluctantly, she lets him into their house ... with dire consequences. Francisca witnesses an act of violence that no child should ever have to face. Later, when her dad returns, his cold reaction to events is typical of the emotionally repressed environment the little girl has grown up in.
It's unfair to give a great deal more away. THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is a short film at just 76 minutes in length. But more than that, it spins a very simple yarn and the less you know going into it the better. Suffice it to say, as the story develops through chapters - "Mother", "Father", "Family" - and Francisca grows into a woman (Kika Magalhaes), we have that early insight into what has damaged her so. She continues to live on the farmhouse, eschewing the outside world and bringing her son Antonio (Joey Curtis-Green) up in her own strange manner. But when her need for companionship overcomes her, she decides it's time to face the outside world. No good can come of that, surely...
If you think that last paragraph is spoilerific, I can assure you there's much more to proceedings. Perhaps not in terms of plot but the devil is in the details here. Pesce has fashioned a slow-burning arty flick which manages to say more in extended passages of pensive silence and Magalhaes ambiguous expressions than a thousand pages of dialogue would.
Speak of whom, the Portugese actress is wonderful here. She's required to carry the bulk of the film and this she does with considerable authority. Hers is a performance akin to that of Eihi Shiina's in AUDITION (which Magalhaes has actually acknowledged as an influence). All brooding silences, wide-eyed thoughtfulness and emotional detachment. When she smiles you don't know whether to be warmed by it or unnerved. We feel empathy for Francisca because we're aware of her awful background; we fear her because her calm exterior clearly houses a monster waiting to reveal itself. And she is hardly accountable for whatever she's about to do, as she knows no better.
The rest of the cast are reliable too, with Brill impressing as the charismatic visitor whose bizarre fate allows for more than a couple of sides of his character to be addressed.
There is violence and a lot of it is gruesome, albeit Pesce cleverly keeps a lot if it offscreen. The power of suggestion is cleverly suggested through fleeting glimpses and sound effects, leading some reviews to claim the film is gorier than it actually is. A more accurate description of the film, if I was pressed to describe it in a single word, would be "disturbing". But then it would be a shame to be so restricted, because then I wouldn't be able to talk about how haunting it is too or how beautifully shot the whole thing is.
Oh yes, Zach Kuperstein's black-and-white cinematography is superb. Whether concentrating on the stripped-back interiors or the wide-open daytime exteriors, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is such a visually sumptuous prospect. The use of light and shade is both expressionistic and extremely atmospheric. Not to mention, as I stated above, beautiful. The languid pace accentuates these stunning shots, allowing the melancholic mood to take a hold of each scene. To this end, it's important to mention Ariel Loh's minimalistic electronic score too - which adds subtly to the ambience.
Thematically the film addresses issues such as how a person's character is formed from an early age due to the environment they've been brought up in, and the fundamental desire we have for human connection. It's an astute film in these regards, it's quietly understated script stripped to a bare minimum where only necessary lines are uttered.
Is THE EYES OF MY MOTHER the outright classic that many are declaring it to be? No, not quite. Its final act is lacking and for all its an affecting piece, there is a sense that this could've pushed buttons even harder. It feels somewhat muted in impact at times.
Having said that, Pesce has fashioned a visually interesting, curiously engaging and offbeat feature debut which shows incredible promise. I'm excited to see what he comes up with next, and I hope he brings Magalhaes along for the ride.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Directed by Nicolas Pesce|