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Some people commit unspeakable acts in the heat of passion. Others do it because it makes them feel good. Then there are those who simply learn violence at a young age, and don't know anything else. Those are the topics broached by director Nicolas Pesce in his intimate, avant-garde horror flick, The Eyes of My Mother, and the result is one of the most expertly crafted and persistently shocking films ever to grace the silver screen.
The film opens on a long, tense, black and white shot that won't make sense at first. It's not supposed to. All it does it set the spine-chilling tone of the affair. From there, we find ourselves introduced to the seemingly idyllic life of a young Francisca and her mother as they study and practice anatomy in their rural home. Francisca's mother was once an eye surgeon in her native home of Portugal, and hopes to one day pass on that trade to her young daughter. However, without getting to in the weeds with regards to spoilers, they soon find their quaint lives shattered by a single act of unspeakable violence, and what follows is a tale of a young, friendless girl who develops a skewed (to say the least) view of what humans beings can and should do to each other.
It's a simple premise, and one used by director Nicolas Pesce to frightening effect. Honestly, I cannot even begin to properly articulate how much this movie chilled me on a primal level. Subject matter aside, The Eyes of My Mother is a master class in horror filmmaking through its expert use of black and white cinematography, as well as its lovely musical accompaniment -- both of which harken back to a bygone era of silent horror filmmaking. Seriously, The Eyes of My Mother feels like Un Chien Andalou viewed through the eyes of a sociopath. Once the credits started to roll, I assumed my phone was about to ring and I would be greeted with a voice saying I would die within seven days. The film simply strikes that balance between reality and otherworldliness.
Much of that balance is owed to Kika Magalhaes' unsettling (to say the least) performance as Francisca. Seldom have we ever seen a horror movie character who manages to convey complete derangement while simultaneously garnering our sympathy. Even when she's obviously tumbling down a very dark rabbit hole, there's something about her -- through a combination of Magalhaes' own physical beauty, as well as her stunning performance -- that almost makes you want to try and help her climb out. That's character symmetry rarely achieved in the modern horror genre. In fact, there's something about Francisca that's oddly reminiscent of Eihi Shiina's Asami from the 1999 Japanese horror movie Audition. They're both real people that you could easily run into in your every day life, but they also happen to harbor evil that makes A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger look like a boy scout.
That being said, the beauty of The Eyes of My Mother's cruelty truly lies in its surprising level of restraint. Yes, the film definitely shows unspeakable acts of violence and buckets of blood are spilled, but upon a second viewing of the film I found myself surprised by how much of the worst of this film is left to the imagination. What really makes The Eyes of My Mother ruthless is the way is the way in which it contextualizes the violence -- the way a character responds to a subtle (yet cringe inducing) stab, a wide shot to show their seclusions, or even a simple cut to show a terrifying passage of time. Nicolas Pesce doesn't just record violence, he uses the medium of film to create art out of it.
One could make an easy case that The Eyes of My Mother falls into the "torture porn" category in the sense that it definitely takes an exploitative approach to violence and human suffering. However, it's the overall execution that elevates this particular outing above the films that give horror a bad name. The Eyes of My Mother burrows into your psyche and takes you to a dark place you didn't know existed. It feels like everyone involved in the making of this film had an understanding regarding how far they wanted to take the material, and it shows just about every aspect of the film -- from the lead performance, to what you can see and hear on screen.
Of course, despite the praise I'm heaping upon The Eyes of My Mother, I have to note that it's not a perfect film. At a brisk 76 minutes in length, the film very clearly feels a bit too short -- and this issue is further bolstered by the fact that it's divided into three separate thematic story segments. The result of these qualities is a movie that has a tendency to go from A to B to C a little bit too quickly, without taking enough time to breathe. Once the horror starts, it doesn't really let up. That being said, I am not entirely sure that (in my fragile emotional state) I would've been able to watch more of this film by the time the credits started to roll.
The last few years have seen a surge in high quality horror films, and the renaissance has been an absolute treat for fans of terror. However, The Eyes of My Mother genuinely takes the genre and places it firmly within the realm of high culture, resulting in one of the most haunting films ever made.