Review: Nicolas Pesce’s Chilling THE EYES OF MY MOTHER

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SHOCK reviews nightmarish “psychotic woman” horror film THE EYES OF MY MOTHER.

The fascination surrounding “psychotic women” in cinema is enduring and ever-potent. As writer Kier La Janisse charted in her acclaimed reference book-cum-confessional HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN, there’s a kind of grace, a broken beauty about women buckling under the pressures of society, of motherhood, of the expectations of the male-dominated world they exist in.

When men go mad, it’s predictable. The role of testosterone aggressor is a known time bomb. We see it. We don’t like it. But we accept it…

But the idea that the nurturer, the “gentler sex” can become a monster has a primal, upsetting and often oddly sexual power. Witness the spate of “psychotic women” movies we’ve been praising here at SHOCK as of late: the “bad nanny” nightmare EMELIE, the paranoid schizophrenic death opera DARLING and, most recently, the sociopath turned lethal succubus fantasy THE LOVE WITCH. All of these movies are fascinating portraits of women who have snapped, often without explanation. These movies do not judge their antagonists, indeed they sympathize. These women are living horrors, yes, but we have empathy for them. We care, even when they’re cutting our throats.

The next contemporary crazy lady masterwork on the list is first time writer/director/producer Nicolas Pesce’s truly jarring, intimate and tragic shock drama THE EYES OF MY MOTHER, a film about the nature of evil, the terrors of children left without a tether, of human relationships irrevocably mangled. Like DARLING, EYES is shot is shadowy black and white, adding an expressionist, otherworldly mood to the proceedings. Also in line with DARLING is Pesce’s decision to divide his minimalist psychodrama into chapters. But unlike DARLING, which is a full-blown assault to the senses with hard cuts, leering shots and camera movements and a punishing soundtrack, EYES is slower, more restrained, gentler and so very, very sad.

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The film opens with a hint of what terrors are to come before we are spirited away to a quaint farmhouse, where a Portuguese-American mother (the film flips between languages, though it was indeed shot in New York…like DARLING!) and former surgeon teaches her young daughter how to kill and cut cows. One day, a giggling strangers oozes his way into the home while the father is at work and proceeds to commit a horrible crime, one that the child witnesses. When dad comes home to discover the horror, he propels the crime several steps further, free-falling into madness and taking his daughter with him.

Years later, that child has grown into a frail, dissonant adult, living in the city and projecting her pain onto a succession of (mostly) female victims, her crimes often committed to the strains of beautiful, haunting Fado music that plays on her turntable.  Assuming a perverted version of her long-dead mother’s identity, she “acquires” a baby and moves back to the country, where she raises the infant as her own. And then things get dark…

Films like this, despite their style and tone, live or die on whether or not the casting is correct; without a human monster we engage with, the voodoo doesn’t work. Thankfully, the female cast here is dynamic. The adult Francisca is played by Kika Magalhaes, whose naturally long face and big eyes, give her an alien, animal-like presence. As the young incarnation of Francisca, Olivia Bond is haunting in her innocence, even in the face of the blackest of acts and as the mother of the title, Diana Agostini is remarkable and Pesce loves to dive his lens into her face and capture those ever-staring eyes.

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER is a stark, masterfully crafted and admirably minimal horror movie and, by the end of it, if you stick with it and navigate its deliberate pace, you’ll be profoundly affected and moved. And deeply disturbed, just like poor, busted and bloodthirsty Francisca herself…

THE EYES OF MY MOTHER plays this weekend at the SHOCK co-presented Fantastic Cinema and Craft Beer Festival.