The horror genre typically goes through a series of highs and lows that continues to adjust expectations. Many casual moviegoers simply assume that they're all either slasher flicks or entirely consumed with jump scares, while underestimating the power of those seeking to have a more psychological impact. This year has been quite impressive for a wide variety of horror films with budgets large and small. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother made some noise at the Sundance Film Festival as being included on such a list of titles. While it's certainly never dull, it didn't quite impact me as it did those earlier in the festival circuit.
A young Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) lives a fairly ordinary life with her parents in the country. When her mother (Diana Agostini) is brutally murdered by an intruder, she grows up consumed by her deepest and darkest desires. Francisca's loneliness haunts her more each day, as she begins to seek a way to fill the void in the most sinister ways possible.
The narrative is told in three parts, titled "Mother," "Father," and "Family," respectively. Each individual entry is meant to display Francisca's descent into madness. However, the core of the film is the deep mother, daughter connection. She deeply admired her, which is why losing her was so difficult. In the years to follow, she even seeks her mother's approval from the afterlife. Even so, Francisca bottles up her emotions, as she is forced to grow up much faster due to her father's inability to take the role of a parent after his wife's murder. This is ultimately a horror film about the goal of making a parent proud, which is clearly evident over the three chapters that are all titled after family. The Eyes of My Mother touches upon some interesting dramatic points, although most of them don't lead anywhere meaningful.
Pesce never has the intention of physically scaring audiences with this horror drama, but rather to instill an unnerving sense of fear. It's even written in a way that causes it to feel like a nightmare that has somehow become reality. Francisca suffers from years of loneliness, with her victims becoming her only ‘friends' to speak with. It all returns to her mother's murder, which she now takes out on the world. Peace successfully establishes the world that Francisca lives in by placing the viewer in her mind, although the film still wants us to feel sympathy for some of her victims. However, since these segments are often skipped over, the audience doesn't experience the total picture of fear in a way that could have established a greater sense of tension. For a film with a short 76-minute running time, The Eyes of My Mother establishes its point quite well, but it could have slightly expanded its running time to make this claustrophobic focus a bit more compelling.
While there are some interesting script mechanics in use here, the third act is riddled with horror clichés that don't have any place here. For a film that seeks to break the rules through its first two acts, Pesce's choice to play on predictable grounds is quite odd. The Eyes of My Mother ends rather abruptly, but it's clear what will happen next. By the time the credits started rolling, the experience felt a bit too cold to the touch. The time jumps feel too large and frequent, which eliminates much of the picture's tone in the conclusion. Pesce banks on hints of drama and fear that are completely unearned, which causes the overall movie to feel a bit undercooked. It should be served as a compliment to want a film to be a bit longer, but it's extremely frustrating when we're delivered with something that feels too thin.
The performances are fine all around, but it's the direction that has caught attention on the film festival circuit. Presented entirely in black and white, the film tries to utilize shadows in every scene possible. The most powerful shots can be found in the barn, where Francisca keeps her victims. Slits of light pour in through the wood that cross the victims' faces, which certainly adds a level of intensity to these sequences. Pesce's use of long shots place an emphasis on the narrative's theme of loneliness, which establishes an atmosphere that entirely supports the screenplay. This may be his first film, but it will be intriguing to see how he grows as an artist in future projects.
Unlike most genre films on the market, this picture wants you to feel like you're stuck in a terrible nightmare. It doesn't want to make you jump or make you wince at its violence, but would rather unnerve you to the core. This tight film ultimately achieves what it set out to do, although expanding upon its themes and dramatic elements would have made for a more powerful feature. Even so, audiences are guaranteed to feel like they're watching something they shouldn't, which is a compliment. You certainly won't feel good walking out of this one. The Eyes of My Mother is deeply unnerving, but it feels a bit too thin. Rent it.
The Eyes of My Mother will be playing at AFI FEST 2016 presented by Audi on November 15th and November 16th.