First-time writer-director Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother feels unnervingly like a Diane Arbus photo that’s been stretched into a film. Which is to say, it’s unnerving, a shadowy black-and-white (well, black-and-gray) image of an older, less homogenized, more frequently grotesque world, where even beauty and innocence may serve to heighten a sense of overwhelming dread and/or impending doom. Viz: Why is that pretty little girl so calm about picking shards of glass from the mangled face of the wounded man chained up in her barn — the same man who murdered her mother just hours before? And don’t tell me it’s because Mom, a former surgeon before she became a former person, taught her daughter all about bodies and dissection. No, the real reason is the lack of Facebook — or at least, the sense of community and connection that Facebook purports to provide, even to people living in rural isolation. People who must otherwise rely on their families, their silent fathers and (Blessed) mothers. It’s absolutely no accident that the Virgin Mary appears in the background of so many scenes. It may, in fact, be the point.
Eyes of My Mother trailer
Soon after the movie opens, we meet mother and daughter out in the garden by a statue of Saint Francis, Mommy relating the story of how the saint lived in the wilderness, beheld a religious vision, and then acquired the stigmata — the wounds of Christ manifested in his own body. But, notes Mom, Francis eventually died of an eye disease that also causes psychosis. Her conclusion: “Loneliness can do strange things to the mind.” The daughter, tellingly named Francisca, promptly runs her finger along the crown of thorns atop the statue and gains a wound of her own. That’s the story, right there. What remains of the 76-minute runtime is just a gradual (but gripping) manifestation.
It isn’t long before Mama is dead and her killer is safely stowed in the barn. And it isn’t long after that before Papa is dead and Francisca is on her own — she may claim that she can feel her mother near, but her fervent prayers to Mom for guidance and comfort are met with terrifying, even maddening silence. Lacking both parental guidance and community mores, the young woman starts flailing about for connection, with increasingly awful results. With no one — not even the divine — around to tell her what may not be done, Francisca’s need becomes her sole motivation and pole star. Add to that her powerful memory of Mom’s surgical prowess, and...well, it isn’t pretty.
Except it sort of is. It’s certainly prettily shot, full of careful compositions, slow crawls, and arful lighting. Or maybe “fascinatingly” is a better word, like a weird photograph you might find in your grandparents’ attic: familiar but also foreign, murky and mysterious, suggesting strangeness. Pesce seems intent on overwhelming the part of the brain that asks critical questions by creating a distracting tension between gruesome events and the elegant depiction of same. (One thing I wish I’d paid closer attention to: the content of the shows that play on television during several scenes. One involved the discussion of a public hanging — the sounds, the crowds, etc. What did poor Francisca make of it? Did it serve as warning or permission? Or did it not even register?) It mostly works, certainly enough to draw out, slowly and steadily, the requisite pity and horror.