by Paula Osa
As a Londoner it is hard to understand the overwhelming physical (and consequently mental) loneliness rural living can bring, especially to a young child. True, I have lived in countryside – in the middle of a forest, detached from civilisation – but I have a functioning family, which again pulls me further away from personally sympathising with Francisca, the protagonist of The Eyes of My Mother. But there can still be understanding without agreement – we are all children of circumstance. We become one with our situation, our background; just like Francisca did.
Nicolas Pesce tells a growing up story of a disturbed young girl in his directorial debut feature film, which he also wrote. A tragedy shatters Francisca’s life in childhood, her mother – formerly a surgeon in Portugal – is viciously killed by a stranger. The little detail of the mother’s former profession becomes a constant throughout the film, as it had given the child a detailed knowledge of the human anatomy, which in turn makes her uncannily detached from the concept of death. Growing up without a mother and with an awfully distant father, Francisca attempts to make sense of matters that no one has ever explained to her. Strangely, she befriends her mother’s murderer who her father had chained up in their old barn. The little girl’s claim “why would I kill you? You are my only friend…” begins to unravel her unique curiosities and her darker side that was awakened by the trauma. The story is hauntingly black and white, and divided into three ‘chapters’: I Mother; II Father; and finally, III Family. By the end the audience realises the intention of such division, which (alongside with lingering long takes) underlines the slow pace typical to 50s and 60s Hollywood films, but also divides deaths, traumatic sequences. Francisca’s loneliness is relatively easy to sympathise with – the absolute isolation and search for love evokes compassion even in the most radical viewer. Especially after her father’s death (did she kill him too?) there is an overhead shot of her bathing him, and getting in bath with him while having a mental breakdown. The sequence is both sinister, and sweet – of course in an utterly disturbing way. However, the viewer is so invested in the life of this young girl whose mother was butchered and whose father paid more attention to the TV than his daughter. There is a heartwarming moment when they dance though; it might be the only moment that made me smile in the film.
We witness Francisca’s attempts of socializing, of getting out of her cottage – she goes to a bar, brings a girl home…and then tells her she killed her father. What a great pick up line! Until way after the father’s death, Charlie (the mother’s murderer) was still alive, chained up, blinded, muted. After his attempt to escape (this scene is odd, a shot through a window of a half-naked man whose way of walking reminded me of a faun – which is understandable, because he has been chained up for years…) Francisca stabs him to death. The scene is overly eroticised, the act of stabbing very closely resembled sex visually and in sound. However this is not the first time that thought crossed my mind – when Charlie was butchering the mother off-screen, the sounds made me initially assume rape.
In last hope, the young woman quite literally kidnaps a child and imprisons his mother the way Charlie was imprisoned. In this last part of the film, I suppose, Francisca’s darkest side appears – which seems impossible after what she had already done. With her darkest side also appears her gentlest side, she transforms herself into a mother figure for Antonio (the baby she kidnaps). In the end, in a very twisted way, all she really was looking for was love. Perhaps the gory deeds are not as extreme to her as it is for us, it is all she is familiar with (surgeon mother!). The erotically eerie masterpiece surprisingly ends in a definite note, physically leaving little up for interpretation and imagination.
Pesce’s feature is definitely a visual and psychological masterpiece, and the director also foremost categorises himself as a visual director. Relying on communicating through images rather than dialogue, results in the film seeming like a series of eerie and stark photographs that have come to life in a nightmarish manner. The story has an underlying moral that suggests that the ones that do the cruelest things, are too, at the end of the day, just humans, seeking love and companionship. Francisca’s problem was that no one had ever explained to her the meanings of life, love, and death. She, in her undeveloped, tragedy struck consciousness, had to figure everything out on her own. She had no friends, her father was distant, so she launched herself at the only living thing that paid at least some attention to her – her mother’s murderer. The possibility of such disturbing events happening is what perhaps allows us to feel sympathy for such an individual – we do not enjoy it, we would not do, or act, the same; but we understand. And this is exactly the director’s intention – to evoke thinking about what life looks like for people like Francisca, when they are not doing those horrifying things – and that everyday life might be just as scary and fascinating (if not more…). She was not a stone cold killer (interestingly there was no direct on-screen violence), but reminded me more of an extremely confused, little girl having a temper tantrum. Francisca’s inability to comprehend life, and cope with it, results in a slightly twisted psychological story – it seems to me that Pesce is a successful storyteller after all, on top of being a talented ‘visualist.’ He manages to aesthetically – through the confusion between eroticism, violence, pain, and pleasure – humanize the so-called monstrous side of human nature that arises at times in certain individuals, and to call everyone to think twice before judging (there is always another layer to everything). Due to its heavy content, The Eyes of My Mother is not perhaps a film you will yearn to see countless times, but this visual gem is definitely worth seeing…unless you’re scared easily..then it will keep you up at night.
Dir: Nicolas Pesce
Prd: Max Born, Jacob Wasserman, Schuyler Weiss
Scr: Nicolas Pesce
Cast: Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Flora Diaz, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong, Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond, Joey Curtis-Green
Music: Ariel Loh
Running Time: 77 min
In UK cinemas on 24 March.