Ordinarily you wouldn’t consider this film in the same vein as the far more uplifting Room, but they both deal with some pretty horrible events that are nevertheless kept effectively in the background while the film says something else (and is depicted from a different point of view) entirely.
Like Jack in Room, the narrative device that tells us the story of heroine Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) is that even though she lives in an environment borne of evil, she doesn’t consider anything in her life terrible because it’s all she’s ever known, and writer director Nicolas Pesce anchors the film so strongly to her childlike outlook we (along with Francisca herself) are only dimly aware of it.
As a little girl growing up in the country, she lives a pretty charmed life. Though her farmer dad is stoic and silent, her Portuguese mother, who’s also an eye doctor, is loving and caring. But when a young man comes to the front door with very bad intentions one day, it turns Francisca’s life upside down, leaving her without a mother and in the care of a father who’s so still and quiet it feels like he barely even knows she’s there.
Because their home is so remote, Francisca reaches her early 20s unaware of how gruesome her upbringing is. When her father passes away of natural causes she keeps his corpse sitting around the house, gradually rotting and bringing flies, because she simply doesn’t understand what death means.
She also considers her mother’s killer – who her father has had chained up in the barn to torture for years – her best friend simply because she doesn’t know anybody else, and when she starts to feel the desires of any young woman (sexuality, friendship, motherhood), they’re cruelly and dangerously twisted up in her worldview.
The Eyes of My Mother is a very slow burning movie, and the high contrast black and white picture adds to the sense of disconnection – we’re only watching a young woman grow up, not concentrating on the horrors around her or the ones she perpetrates without knowing why they’re wrong.
The approach is spelled out in the opening scene, an extremely long and wide shot of someone staggering down a forest highway dressed in rags, waving weakly for a rig driver to stop and help. It’s a long sequence that cuts away before you have any idea who the woman is or why she’s dragging herself down a country road in such a state, and Pesce takes his time during the rest of the film to tell you.
The story is kind of an anthropological ‘what if’, asking what might happen if a normal woman grows up without any moral guidance. And while there’s a little bit of blood and some violence, it’s an effective and classy cinema verite horror.