'Shine Your Eyes': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
A debut feature shimmering with confidence and talent.
7/29/2020

A Nigerian searches Sao Paulo for his missing brother in Brazilian filmmaker Matias Mariani's multicultural drama about family, identity and myth.

After a brief opening episode that shows two young boys in Nigeria in 1988, Shine Your Eyes leaps to 2019. The younger of the boys, Amadi, arrives in Brazil looking for his older brother, Ikenna, who moved there and has since gone off the grid. From that bare-bones premise, Brazilian director Matias Mariani spins a stunning multicultural film that blends family drama and a quest for identity with elements of a detective story. Set in a richly textured vision of Sao Paulo, largely among the Igbo community of Nigerian immigrants, the slow-burn film features superbly understated acting and astute visuals. This is Mariani's first fiction film after having made two documentaries and shorts, but its ambition and accomplishment are fully formed.   

In Sao Paulo, Amadi (OC Ukeje) stays with an Igbo family friend, who owns a shop selling hair and braids. The film's early Nigerian episode sends ripples though every step Amadi now takes as he tracks down clues that might lead to his brother. Young Ikenna had made Amadi observe his face upside down, and asked him to imagine a mouth on his forehead to create a new face. "I need your imagination for this," Ikenna says, and in the present day Amadi is still trying to imagine and construct his brother's identity. 

Amadi starts with the web page that lists Ikenna as a mathematics professor at a university. It turns out that the building in the photo behind Ikenna on that page has never held a university. Amadi finds Ikenna's abandoned computer and tracks down a friend of his, who knew him as Charlie, an only child. Is Ikenna a fraud, or just too embarrassed to admit failure to his family at home? As we learn more, we see that while there's a chance he might be a mad genius, there's a better chance that he's delusional.

Mariani's visual choices and Leonardo Bittencourt's cinematography shape the story perfectly. The Sao Paulo streets, full of high rises, graffiti and traffic, look crisp and clear, vivid without falling into any colorful stereotypes. The film's 4:3 aspect ratio works as more than a stunt. The squarish frame hints at Amadi's confinement and frustration in a country where he doesn't even speak the language. But Mariani gracefully varies long shots, medium shots and close-ups so that viewers don't feel claustrophobic. Flemming Nordkrog's score is effective in its simplicity, underlining rather than overwhelming Amadi's quest.

For much of the film, Ikenna (Chukwudi Iwuji, from the series The Split) is glimpsed in photographs and videos. His enigmatic presence onscreen mirrors Amadi's experience of him. The film also creates suspense through unlikely means, with Amadi poring over his sibling's mysterious equations, notebooks and computer files. And there are eloquent layerings and callbacks. The film's opening image has the two boys running along a gravel road surrounded by lush green trees. Much later, the image is reversed. In a dream, Amadi sees the same road, with the boys running in the opposite direction and the same trees now a lush purple. Glancing images like this contribute to the film's cohesion, whether or not they instantly register as echoes.  

The narrative is propelled by the mystery about Ikenna, but never loses sight of the fact that this is Amadi's story, fraught with sibling rivalry. He carries with him a recorded message his mother made for Ikenna, which makes it clear that she favors her first son. As Amadi, Ukeje is perfectly in sync with the film's modulated tone. At first he is stoic, telling his host in Brazil, "I'm doing what is expected of me." When he learns about Ikenna's deceptions, he finally explodes in anger, a scene made more powerful because it has followed such restraint.

Family legends and myths add a mystical dimension. Long ago, a soothsayer suggested that Ikenna, though alive, had been reincarnated into his brother. What worse fortune could there be for the underappreciated second son trying to escape his brother's shadow? Amadi also scoffs at the story of a family curse but can't entirely put it out of his mind. Mariani doesn't talk down to his audience by explaining the culture that Amadi takes for granted. The context takes care of that well enough.

The one weak plot thread is the romance between Amadi and Ikenna's former girlfriend, Emilia, who works at the hair shop. Coming late in the film, it feels like overload, and at the same time is too thinly developed. At the very least we might have gotten a better sense of whether Emilia is using Amadi as a substitute for his brother. When the mystery of Ikenna's disappearance is solved, the resolution suits both the elusive missing brother and the film's increasingly self-aware hero.

Mariani grew up in Sao Paulo and studied at New York University. The film has many screenwriters credited because he enlisted expert help on everything from Igbo culture to Ikenna's mathematical equations. The film is a mix of Igbo, Portuguese and English languages. But with all these disparate parts, Shine Your Eyes displays a singular vision. It should, rightly, gain attention for Mariani as a bright new filmmaker.

Production Company: Primo Filmes

Distributor: Netflix

Cast: OC Ukeje, Indira Nascimento, Paulo Andre, Ike Barry, Chukwudi Iwuji

Director: Matias Mariani

Screenwriters: Matias Mariani, Chika Anadu, Francine Barbosa, Julia Murat, Maira Buhler, Roberto Winter

Producers: Matias Mariani, Marie-Pierre Macia, Juliana Funaro, Claire Gadea, Renata Wolter, Issis Valenzuela, Junyoung Jang

Cinematography: Leonardo Bittencourt

Production Designer: Fernando Timba

Costume Designers: Cris Rose, Jeane Figueiredo

Editors: Isabelle Dedieu, Luisa Marques

Music: Flemming Nordkrog

Casting: Carla Stronge, Maria Clara Escobar

102 minutes