Debutant writer-director Nicolas Pesce has crafted an immaculately horrifying vision with The Eyes of My Mother; a bloodcurdling monochrome nightmare, which drip-feeds dread with malicious precision. In an era defined by lazy, recycled scare tactics, this briskly-paced, cinematically-rich examination of fear burrows deep into the darkest recesses of the psyche, and refuses to budge long after the curtain call.
This artful, yet unashamedly depraved, tale unfolds almost entirely within a secluded farmhouse on the fringes of rural America. Here, young Francisca (Olivia Bond) receives lessons in anatomy from her mother (Diana Agostini), who was once a surgeon in Portugal. Already a little too enchanted with death, her innocence is soon entirely shattered by an unwelcome visitor who arrives on site looking to fulfil his malevolent bloodlust. As the years roll on, something changes in Francisca – her fragile mind becoming evermore warped – and as she grows into a young woman (a simply astonishing Kika Magalhaes), a deeply disturbing activity from the past becomes a functional normality. As family traditions go, you aren’t likely to find one more distressing.
Thoughtfully chaptered into three segments – “Mother,” “Father,” and “Family” – Pesce’s audacious first film curates a masterful examination of psychological drama and madness. The Eyes of My Mother is a relentlessly unsettling watch; breeding anxiety and trauma from the first frame, to the final. At a no-nonsense 76 minutes (including credits), he refuses the spectator any kind of breathing room, rather thrusting us into the heart of the horror from the get-go. However, in a similar vein to Robert Eggers’ The Witch in 2015, the focal point of terror here is tonal. There are no empty jump scares. There is never a reliance on gore or violence to emotionally provoke. Pesce understands that atmosphere and stillness are the utmost keys to underpinning our deepest fears. Often the idea of something is far more distressing, and he plays to that rhythm with maniacal intent.
Let’s get real for a second. The Eyes of My Mother is not for everyone. It is a deeply, piercingly cold film; one which brushes with minimalist strokes of sadness, delicately chipping away at the viewer. The initial home intrusion scene – something we’ve seen many-a-time in horror and thriller filmmaking – is so casually orchestrated that it feels all the more profound. The seeming joy of causing untold physical and emotional pain is enough to make even a hardened spectator wince, despite the fact all the nasties happen out of frame. Pesce’s enveloping visual palette, awash with Gothic glory, render some deeply sobering images, too. His film equally thrills and scars with each passing still, and despite how short the film actually is, a methodical pacing ensures each has enough time to burn into your watering retinas.
Despite key themes of murder, torture, and kidnap, a crisp black-and-white aesthetic ensures that even in the darkest of hours, there is beauty to behold. As debut films go, the craftsmanship is mightily accomplished, and impressively confident. Pesce demonstrates his eye for shot composition, ensuring the warm usage of bleached lighting expertly contrasts his shadowy images. A sequence involving Francisca’s ailing father in a bathtub – a skeletal frame bobbing in milky-white water – evokes the same impression of disgust and majesty as that scene from Harmony Korine’s Gummo. Elsewhere, a nauseating score, textured with whirring synths, and pitter-patter percussion, compliments the exceptional sound design, which is as devastatingly restrained as European arthouse audio.
As previously mentioned, Magahlaes’ performance – her first major role in a feature-length narrative – is truly excellent. She oozes twisted charm, forever remaining an unpredictable navigator in this corrosive landscape. Her freakish outbursts of sorrow, often directed at her now-muted parent, are both strangely sad, and consistently skin-crawling. Most impressive however, is the conviction Magahlaes showcases when it’s time to get the hands dirty. This angelic, wiry-framed young woman quietly broods with uncompromising sadism, and commands your nerve-shaken attention as a consequence.
Pesce has somehow managed to convey unspeakable ugliness with immaculate elegance. The Eyes of My Mother is a feverish, intoxicating horror experience, forged with the utmost lyricism. You will not forget it once viewed, and that’s the biggest compliment we can provide.
The Eyes of My Mother opens in select UK cinemas on Friday, 24th March. Click here to read our exclusive interview with writer-director Nicolas Pesce.