Shadows can scream where voices are silenced. The Eyes of My Mother speaks without words in a way that can only be described as the deranged loneliness of serial killer Ed Gein entwined with the phantoms of Rebecca. However, the ghosts that linger in Francisca’s disturbingly stainless white walls are the wraiths of inconceivable crimes.
There are no fairy stories here. Wildflowers shivering in the spring breeze provide the eerie backdrop to the soft yet unsettling voice of Francisca’s Portuguese mother, which mingles with the breeze as she tells the legend of Saint Francis of Assisi’s dreamlike encounter with an angel, after which he woke the next morning with the Stigmata, sighing ominously that loneliness can do strange things to the mind. That his death of a condition that poisoned him with psychosis is a chilling aspect of foreshadowing easily missed—until it echoes in the back of your skull with the unraveling of later events.
Francisca is sitting cross-legged in the soft grass, playing with her doll as guilelessly as any stereotypical child when a stray traveling salesman drifts toward her during the film’s opening moments. Her mother, whose forbidding gaze echoes that of her daughter in later scenes, attempts to send him off. Somehow his greasy psychopathic smile and impatience to use the bathroom convince her to open her door to the gaping mouth of something monstrous. The irony of this thrill killer, shamelessly standing underneath a stark black cross flashing his jack-o-lantern grin, is more terrifying than the actual murder.
Something monstrous and irreversible is set off in Francisca. After her father chains the moaning captive and locks him in the barn, she tells him she will take care of him in a deceptively innocent little-girl voice like frozen sugar. There is only a shroud of blackness until her silhouetted form stands up clutching what looks all too eerily like a doctor’s bag. It is only then you realize, from the bloody blindfold and wordless coughing, that she has removed his eyes and vocal chords. When her father dies of something unexplained, the specter of loneliness sets off an unutterable grief—and homicidal urges.
Nicolas Pesce’s directorial debut is startling in its simplicity. Filmed entirely in black and white, his snapshots of a twisted and tragic existence are as striking as they are sinister. The spaces between are forbidding, frozen, waiting to crack into a million spiderwebs. There is no amount of soap or ammonia that can dissolve the unsettling images it will sear into your subconscious for sleepless nights to come. Venturing to the extremes of the human condition, The Eyes of My Mother hauntingly illustrates how desperately a deranged and stranded soul will try to claw her way out of the chasm of isolation.
The silence in itself is a phantom. It roars in your ears with a throbbing doom and impermeable sadness impossible to ignore. Whispers of foreshadowing are like tiny painted details in a music box scene that cannot be unseen once you’ve glimpsed them—the almost sentient wildflowers trembling in the wind as if they feel something ominous chilling the spring air, the linen ghosts of dresses fluttering on a clothesline, and a porcelain figure of the baby Jesus perched serenely next to a TV babbling about murder.
Just the metallic trembling of a chain or the sputtering engine of a car can fracture the stillness within this film in a way more frightening than the most graphic bloodbath. Violence is painted not in pulsating scarlet but gauzy shades of gray that lend a sort of dreamlike disbelief to what just happened in the bathtub. The blood on Francisca’s hands is as black and sticky as her sins, viscous as the starless nights that swallow up her victims.
Eyes that stare and shift with constant unrest tell the unsettling story of a farm girl who sharpens her art of murder in the swaying grasses of a rural nowhere. Her surgeon mother’s gaze is at once serene and piercing as she severs the optic nerve of a cow with a scalpel using the kitchen counter as her operating table, while her daughter has an innocent manner of saying some of the most disturbing things to leave the lips of a child since “I see dead people.”
There always seems to be something that is being whispered beyond hearing. The silence sometimes dances to a soundtrack of eerie notes that tinkle like windchimes and Portuguese melodies sung by a voice overcome with desire or grief—or both—but even with the music wailing with vintage static from a record player, the silence that waits with a sinister patience to consume the characters and everything that surrounds them is deafening.
There is a duality to Francisca, a rare glimpse into the psyche of a serial killer that is often left unexplored in the genre or otherwise blurred by all the blood spatter. It is a hard but fragile quality just on the edge of tangible. She is ice, but shatter-thin, translucent ice whose frailty hides a razor edge. Kiki Magalhaes’ brutal but delicate performance verges on tragic despite the specter of unforgivable sin.
She is a killer ballerina, at once ethereal and dangerous. Hands clasped in prayer with a placid and even virginal expression make you want to believe she has repented until those same pale fingers are clutching a knife. Horror films often portray psychopaths as masks of irrationally laughing insanity, but Francisca is cast in bone china. There is something tremulous about her psychopathy, a twisted tenderness to the way she does inexplicable things, stone-faced cold that explodes into an onslaught of tears. She could just as easily be delivered or damned.
Pesce’s atmospheric symphony of light and penumbra, of idyllic and monstrous, echoes the black and white phantasmagorias of the ‘30s and ‘40s that conjured emotion through light, shadow and the power of suggestion. The absence of chainsaws and disembodied limbs, and full-frontal gore only amplifies the carnage.
The way the Pesce shows only the disinfected aftermath tortures the imagination with the horrors that must have transpired in those blackout moments that glance from one scene to the next. Zach Kuperstein’s cinematography is like a cemetery angel standing with head bowed and wings folded, a wilting bouquet in its hands, marble lips forever holding back the secrets of who lies beneath. Everything is said with the eyes, another bold choice we don’t often see in gore-spattered scenes in which subtleties like this are smeared with shrieking. The purity and remorselessness of Francesca’s gaze will freeze your blood.
The Eyes of My Mother weeps caustic tears of a past murdered and mourned. It is beautifully disconcerting in the rawness of death and the torrent of uncensored emotions it can unleash. This is a film that shocks with silence and grips with fear and anguish, and the ghosts of scenes that are not seen or heard—but undeniably happened behind doors and curtains and the veil of nightfall—are the most savage.