'The Eyes of My Mother': Sundance Review

The Eyes of My Mother still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Strange and strangely enthralling.

Intense Portuguese actress Kika Magalhaes fronts this debut feature from music video director Nicolas Pesce.

A grizzly tale of American Gothic served up with an unexpected dash of moodily melodic Portuguese fado, The Eyes of My Mother is both strange and strangely enthralling. Shot, digitally, in beautifully composed black-and-white, this darkly comic feature about a young girl growing up in violent times is set on an isolated American farm that looks like it could be just down the road from where Charles Laughton’s classic and equally unclassifiable The Night of the Hunter was set. Though this won’t be any distributor’s idea of a surefire commercial hit, a small boutique operation should consider investing in a relationship with music video prodigy Nicolas Pesce, a clear talent who makes his feature debut here and whom the industry should keep an eye on.

The beauty of the film — as well as one of the main reasons most mainstream audiences will resist it — is that it’s not very dialogue-heavy and refuses to connect the dots between one scene and the next too explicitly, leaving it up to the viewers to draw their own conclusions.

After an enigmatic opening that the narrative will circle back to later, the film’s first part, called Mother, focuses on a cute and innocent-seeming little girl, Francisca (Olivia Bond), who lives with her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini), a former surgeon, and father (Paul Nazak) on an isolated cattle farm in an unspecified time and place (the film was shot in Cooperstown, New York). An eerie-looking and oddly acting stranger called Charlie (Will Brill) insinuates his way into the house when Dad isn’t home and commits a horrible crime in front of the little girl.

Parts two and three, named Father and Family, respectively, jump ahead in time, when Francisca has become a young woman (Kika Magalhaes) with a child, Antonio (Joey Curtis-Green). Her behavior has also become extremely violent. Clearly, she’s been traumatized by what she experienced as a little girl and has lacked moral guidance in her life (it’s never clear if she’s ever even been to school, though both she and Antonio speak fluent English and Portuguese).  

Pesce cleverly keeps most of the actual violence offscreen, with sound effects, suggestive cuts and outwardly quiet but entirely horrifying images — such as little Francisca mopping blood off a tiled floor — doing most of the heavy lifting. What slowly emerges is a sense of the problematic psychological makeup of Francisca, who has had to grow up after not only an enormously traumatic experience but also without any role models. This seems to have led her to simply copy the behavior of the adults around her, including the deranged Charlie and her aging father, whose methods of dealing with monsters isn’t exactly what could be described as gentle, either.

There are some frisson-inducing moments of poetry as well, often set to the heartfelt, slow-burning wails of Portuguese fado superstar Amalia Rodrigues. These quieter moments help make sense of what Francisca must be thinking and feeling. They include a masterful overhead shot in which the protagonist tries to get into the tub with the corpse of her father while she laments her loneliness after his death. It is twinned with a moment of maternal embrace, later in the film, that’s feels like it could have come straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. Ariel Loh’s minimalist, quietly sinister score helps to further suggest the right tone in several key scenes, though Pesce isn't afraid of pregnant silences in the least.  

The contribution of cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, with his precise framing and his and Pesce’s sharp sense of mise-en-scene, can also not be underestimated. If anything, naysayers will suggest the film is an exercise in style that lacks an easily identifiable narrative throughline or likeable protagonist, though champions can counter that that says more about their unwillingness or inability to enter into a dialogue with the film’s rich gallery of images, sounds and sensations than anything about the film’s inherent qualities. Hopefully, post-screening discussions over the film will at least stay civilized and everyone will leave their saws, knives, needles and shackles at home. Those things can get you in a right mess. 

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT sidebar)
Production companies: Borderline Presents, Tandem Pictures

Cast: Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Flora Diaz, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong, Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond
Director-screenwriter: Nicolas Pesce
Producers: Max Born, Jacob Wasserman, Schuyler Weiss
Executive producers: Antonio Campos, Sean Durkin, Josh Mond
Director of photography: Zach Kuperstein
Production designer: Sam Hensen
Costume designer: Whitney Anne Adams
Editors: Nicolas Pesce, Connor Sullivan
Music: Ariel Loh
Casting: Stephanie Holbrook
Sales: UTA

Not rated, 77 minutes