Sydney Film Festival Review: The Eyes of My Mother (USA, 2016)

Richard Kuipers, Programmer of the “Freak Me Out” program strain for Sydney Film Festival preceded a recent screening of The Eyes of My Mother with a fairly apt description: “the point where extreme art house and extreme horror meet”. While art house may outweigh horror here, Kuipers primed viewers correctly, Nicolas Pesce disturbing feature playing out as a mesh of both worlds, bringing the intriguing scope of art house to unwrap a story about one woman’s sickening relationship with death and tracking how that relationship was formed on a secluded farmhouse property in Portugal.

This is a nightmarish black and white film, quiet and soft as it observes Francisca (Olivia Bond) as a youth, doting towards her mother (Diana Agostini) who teaches her daughter surgical techniques – mainly concerning eye surgery – via practice on cows. Francisca’s lessons on surgery are broken up by fragmented exposure to religion and not much else, life guided by her mother who she stares at with wide-eyed curiosity and loyal obedience, locked with a gaze that isn’t afforded to her more absent father (Paul Nazak).

Scenes are largely devoid of emotion and dialogue, patient and still even when the mother unwittingly invites a psychopathic killer (Will Brill) into the house while the father is away. The stranger viciously kills Francisca’s mother in front of her, fracturing the little girls upbringing and introducing her to unspeakable horror, taking place largely off camera thanks to some skillful shots by Zach Kuperstein who pieces together a story that works with – and relies on – the viewer’s imagination with a minimal approach.

The father catches the stranger playing with the mother’s body in the bathtub and locks him up in the barn, effectively ending our time spent with Francisca as a young girl and making way for a time jump to her as a young woman (Kika Magalhaes). Still wide-eyed and emotionally scarred, Francisca is innocently brutal, increasingly fascinated with the human body and acting on her disturbed relationship with the flesh through casual, unconcerned acts of violence.

Inexplicably, Will Brill’s deranged character is still alive in that barn, surviving years of being chained up and tortured, living on a diet of decapitated rats. The stranger is Francisca’s only relationship outside of her father, who passes away before the corpse being kept and bathed regularly, and his trauma far exceeds any imaginable punishment, essentially creating a literal monster from a figurative one.

The narrative is never truly defined, fleshed out, or even comprehensible, a grotesque painting that’s left half blank as Pesce encourages the viewer to actively confront what’s being presented to them. We never leave Francisca’s perspective, which is sensual expressed as unwillingly aggressive, nor do we ever get a proper view of the various motivations that have led to such a disturbed individual. Instead, the strength lies in the atmosphere Pesce and Kuperstein have built, marvelously unsettling and grand in scope while still maintaining the intimacy that’s needed to stick and, at times, sympathise with a reclusive girl who is beyond good and evil.

It’s difficult to look past the absolute stretch of having Francisca’s victims survive in captivity for so long, given the conditions they are kept in, but as long as one is willing to suspend disbelief and is desensitised to such a disturbed story, then The Eyes of My Mother is a compelling 77 minute look at what can happen to a young mind raised on the wrong – and extreme – end of circumstance.

Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Run Time: 77 minutes

The Eyes of My Mother screened as part of the 63rd annual Sydney Film Festival. More information can be found HERE.