A truck drives down a desolate country road, when the figure of a dishevelled woman lumbers into view. The torment she’s been through is unclear. The driver stops as the woman collapses, defeated. It’s one of only a handful of scenes in Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother that doesn’t take place on the property of main character Francisca, and it’s a fittingly bleak opening to what is a beautifully austere, deeply unsettling piece of work.
Performances, down to the most minor of characters, never miss a beat. As the film cuts to the house where the narrative will mostly make its home, Francisca (played, at this age, by a faultless Olivia Bond) watches as her mother (Diana Agostini) surgically removes the eyes of a dead cow in the kitchen. It’s an early squirm-inducing moment, but not without purpose: as she does this, her mother talks of her own dalliances with learning to be a surgeon, and her hopes that her daughter will follow a similar, if more ambitious, path.
What follows is one of the film’s most genuinely disquieting scenes, as Francisca and her mother are set upon by an intruder. Initially cordial if a little cold, Francisca’s mother tries to politely ask him to leave, to no avail. Charlie (The OA‘s Will Brill) dials up the intensity brilliantly here, and as awkwardness turns to dread, there’s a parallel to be drawn with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games in the gradual realisation, both to character and viewer, that what began as a visitor outstaying their welcome has turned to feeling unsafe in your own home. Francisca’s mother is killed in the ensuing struggle, before her father comes home and, in an offscreen incident, subdues Charlie and restrains him in a large barn on the property. Leaving Francisca largely to her own devices, she sees an opportunity to hone her surgery skills on a living, breathing test subject.
From here, The Eyes of My Mother is, for want of a better pun, best viewed blind. The less you know about its generation-spanning narrative arc going in, the better. Its premise would, in a lesser film, lend itself to protracted, lazy torture porn, but what we have instead is a remarkable, convincing collision of the arthouse and the visceral. Both relentlessly claustrophobic and remarkably ambitious in its storytelling, in The Eyes of My Mother‘s monochrome stillness lies genuine emotional depth, and offers a brilliantly assured and confident debut from Pesce.