In horror, it is often stated that what is implied is more frightening than what can be seen explicitly. Writer/director Nicolas Pesce embraces this philosophy in his directorial debut The Eyes of My Mother which is playing as part of the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. Pesce presents the tale of a young woman who, after witnessing the brutal murder of her mother, goes to extreme lengths to avoid losing contact with the few people that do come into her life. Beautiful black and white cinematography coupled with quiet, deliberately paced scenes gives the film a pastoral feel that contrasts with the horrific events depicted. Many of the most brutal incidents happen not just off screen but between scenes, allowing the viewers to fill in details on their own, thereby magnifying the horror. The filmmakers use this sparse, reserved style to explore and illustrate the loneliness and isolation of the main character.
The story of The Eyes of My Mother covers some twenty to thirty years in its trim 76 minute running time. Writer/director Nicola Pesce divides his tale of loss and loneliness into three acts, each of which follows Francesca, a young rural woman as she has to deal with the possibility of losing those close to her. Francesca (Olivia Bond) is a girl of about seven or eight who lives with her mother (Diana Agostini), who is a Portuguese immigrant, and her father (Paul Nazak) on their rural mountain farm. Francesca’s mother had medical training when she was younger so she enjoys using butchered cattle to teach Francesca anatomy; nothing says mother-daughter bonding like dissecting cow eyes. One day, while the father is out, a stranger (Will Brill) talks his way into the house and brutally murders the mother within earshot of Francesca. Her father returns and catches the stranger in the act, beating him and imprisoning the stranger in the barn. Francesca helps her father by using the medical knowledge she gained from Mother to pacify the stranger and to assure his silence. As Francesca grows into a young woman (Kika Magalhaes), she has further opportunities to utilize her medical skills and knowledge of anatomy as she desperately tries to hold onto the people that come into her life.
Shot in black and white by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, The Eyes of My Mother is gorgeous to look at. His long, wide shots of the rural country surrounding the farm convey both a pastoral peacefulness along with a sense of solitude central to the theme of the film. The loneliness of the characters is emphasized in these shots as they are presented a small figures in the background, dwarfed by the rest of the frame. For the interiors, Kuperstein’s use of light and shadow is stunning, with creative shot selections keeping visual interest. The warm interiors of the farmhouse are contrasted with the deeply shadowed barn where the majority of the violence occurs.
As with the cinematography, Pesce’s sparse use of dialog contributes to the feeling of isolation. Much of the film follows Francesca as she goes about her mostly solitary existence. As such, her dialog is often limited to soft spoken comments, sometimes in English and sometimes in Portuguese. When she does speak out loud, it is often to a character that is not there, such as her late mother, or characters that cannot reply for various reasons. In the few scenes where there are two or three people capable of speaking, conversations almost never consist of more than a few lines uttered quietly and with much silence between sentences. Even when characters are together, they are isolated from each other.
The frugal use of dialog and extended shots give the film a deliberate pace, though the shorter run time keeps it from feeling overly long. The filmmakers take their time, letting things unfold at what feels to be natural tempo; they are in no rush to end most of the scenes. This provides The Eyes of My Mother a calm, pastoral feel while also enhancing the impact of the more violent and disturbing bits in the film. During these more intense events, the filmmakers choose to deviate from the more languid style of the rest of the film, abruptly ending the scenes, such as jump cutting from the middle of a scream to the quiet aftermath. Cutting abruptly from the action leaves much of the more violent actions implied instead of being explicitly displayed. Often, the scene even cuts away before any violence is even initiated. Rarely does the audience witness any directly violence. Instead, the filmmakers show the aftermath of events. It is up to the viewer to piece together what has happened, and it can sometimes take a scene or two to fully understand the full impact. On the few occasions where violence occurs on screen, it is all the more disturbing and brutal.
Nicolas Pesce makes an impressive directorial with The Eyes of My Mother. His quiet, frugal use of dialog enhances the feelings of loneliness of the main character. Zach Kuperstein’s black and white cinematography is both gorgeous and fitting, further driving home the isolation of the characters, both physically and emotionally. The filmmakers provide a contrast between long, languid, pastoral takes and grisly violence, with the more graphic events taking place offscreen. Quiet scenes of the aftermath of maimings and murder prove to be even more horrific than witnessing the acts themselves. The result is a film that uses audio and visual silences to present a disturbing portrait of a damaged individual.
The Eyes of My Mother (4 / 5)