With his feature directing debut The Eyes of My Mother, Nicholas Pence delivers the kind of breathtaking, nerve wracking and thought provoking kind of arthouse horror experience that leaves nothing on the table. Filmed in crisp black and white that emphasizes the stunning imagery and anchored by a flawless performance from Kika Magalhaes, Mother tackles the very human need to make a connection with the world around us while providing a deeply disturbing character portrait of mental illness.
Mother revolves around Francisca (played by Magalhaes as an adult, and Olivia Bond as a young girl) the child of Portugese immigrants. It follows three stages of her life: Francisca as a young girl, as a young woman and as a young mother. As a child, Francisca learns about the human anatomy from her mother, who was a surgeon in her previous life overseas before moving to the States and tending to the family farm. While the girl inherits blooming surgical skills from her mother, Francisca struggles to gain affection from her cold and distant father. While the girl struggles with this detachment, her life is marked by violent tragedy that takes the girl’s mother from her. As she loses the one person who displayed any warmth towards her, Francisca goes to extreme lengths in order to make a physical and emotion connection with another person.
To go into detail on how the girl goes about that business is to reveal one of the great many shocking moments Pence delivers to the audience. Pence, who edited the film along with Connor Sullivan, also displays a sharp mind for just the right cuts to make in order to steal the audience’s breath. Time and time again Pence builds anticipation to a crescendo, only to cut away at the last possible moment to the aftermath of the violence. Pence doesn’t allow the audience to bear witness to the depths Francisca sinks to in her warped attempt to find someone to connect with. It tends to have a jolting effect, leaving the viewer to imagine the horrors that transpired while Francisca completes her lonely task of cleaning up her mess.
The stark black and white surroundings to Francisca’s world do wonders when it comes to mirroring the sense of isolation the young woman feels. The barren world around the oasis that is the girl’s family farm feels lifted out of the pages of Updike. It’s a world that practically condemns Francesca to an inescapable life of loneliness. It’s a setting as barren as the social graces the girl never had a chance to learn once her mother was taken from her.
Given the monstrous revelations of Francisca’s actions, the audience should see her as a straight villain. However, Magalhaes brings a sense of childlike wonder to the role, and imbues the woman with a desperate sense of humanity that allows the viewer to understand, if not forgive, the woman’s actions. Pence demonstrates in a visceral, visual way the girl’s inability to let things go, whether it be the mother stolen from her, her cold and distant father, or even the monster that comes into her orbit and sends her world crashing around her. For Francisca, there is only one sin: the act of leaving. Magalhaes balances that by playing the woman with whose understanding of the world never progressed past adolescence. She possesses a child’s sense of morality. What matters the most is having her own needs, that of being protected and cared for, met by any means available.
The Eyes of My Mother offers the kind of challenging viewing so often missing from modern genre films. Pence delivers a heartbreaking story so beautifully shot and crafted that you find yourself empathizing with its central villain despite her flawed nature. Mother is a sparkling meditation on the very human desire to feel less alone in the world, and one hopes it finds a large and appreciative audience when Magnolia releases the film this November.