It takes great skill and craftsmanship to create a character that evokes terror, empathy, pity and disgust in equal measure. And it takes an equal amount of skill to effectively execute and capture that character on film. In 2016, Nicolas Pesce (The Grudge, Piercing) succeeded at both when he introduced the world to Francisca in his directorial debut film, The Eyes of My Mother. After sweeping the festival circuit and racking up accolades, Francisca quickly became regarded as one of the most haunting killers in recent years. But what is it about her that makes her such a successfully evocative character? Join me fiends, as we hold up a lens and look deeper into the complex darkness of Francisca.
A concise and simple tale, The Eyes of My Mother follows Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) as she navigates loss, loneliness and her own inner darkness. From the outset of the film and its beautiful cold open, there is no question that the conclusion of our story will not be a pleasant one. But of course, it’s the journey that leads up to that point that intrigues and mesmerizes. Broken down into three key loss-filled chapters of Francisca‘s life, the film gives us just the right amount of information needed to understand the formation and evolution of Francisca‘s darkness. By structuring Francisca‘s story in such a manner, Pesce creates a woman that is both anti-hero and protagonist. Yes, she is a killer and capable of terrible things, but her story fosters a fine balance of sympathy and terror in equal measure.
We are first introduced to Francisca as a young girl, approximately 10 years in age, living with her mother and father on a remote, rural farm. Quickly, we see Francisca is rather innocent, quiet, inquisitive and curious. Her mother (Diana Agostini), previously an eye surgeon in Portugal, is an intelligent, scientific woman who relays information to her daughter in practical and logical ways. Some children make dioramas or read fairy tales. Francisca participates in cow eye dissections and hears foreboding tales on the perils of loneliness. And yet, nothing seems to really phase the young girl. For her, this mode of conversation is normal and therefore accepted with ease.
It soon becomes evident that Francisca sees the world in her own unique way. Strengthening this aspect of her character, the entire movie is presented in black and white. Apart from being a beautiful stylistic choice, the monochrome nature of the film speaks directly to the way Francisca interprets, sees and thinks about the world. Similar to the way later, more violent scenes in the movie are softened to us as an audience by lack of color, these events retain a distance and disconnect to Francisca as well. Supporting this visual element and literally underscoring Francisca‘s battle with isolation throughout the film is the lack of a traditional film score. Often times, a score is utilized to convey a character’s inner emotions. Therefore, by choosing an extremely sparse and minimalist approach to the film’s score, Pesce only further highlights Francisca’s inner disconnect from the world around her.
“Yes, [Francisca] is a killer and capable of terrible things, but her story fosters a fine balance of sympathy and terror in equal measure.”
We see these ideas in action as the first defining moment for Francisca‘s character occurs. After a chance run-in with a man named Charlie, Francisca witnesses her mother’s brutal murder and her father’s subsequent reaction. When her father (Paul Nazak) returns home and interrupts Charlie, he incapacitates him only to then chain Charlie up in the family barn. Clearly, this entire sequence of events are both tragic and shocking. However, one certainly wouldn’t think so based on Francisca and her father’s reactions. Throughout the entire course of events, Francisca remains calm, cool and collected. Like a pint-sized sponge, she soaks up the events through her eyes and feeds off the adult’s energy. Reinforcing her interpretation and disconnection to the events, Francisca‘s father makes no effort to shield her from the horror in any way shape or form. He shows no outward signs of sadness or grief except for an increase in his alcohol intake. He makes no efforts to console or even emotionally check in on his daughter. Far worse, he leaves the clean-up of both Charlie and Charlie‘s mess for Francisca to deal with.
As Francisca engages with Charlie for the first time since the murder, we begin to really see a bit more of her character. As the film has subtly established, Francisca has long been isolated from anyone other than her mother and father. Therefore, regardless of his evil deeds, Charlie offers Francisca a new opportunity which she immediately recognizes.
Charlie: Are you going to kill me?
Francisca: Why would I kill you? You’re my only friend.
Despite this previous sentiment, her logical approach to problem-solving wins out as she removes Charlie‘s eyes and severs his vocal chords. By taking such intense measures, Francisca simultaneously silences Charlie while lowering his threat level and making him vulnerable and dependent on her.
Let’s look into her thought process here for a moment. To us the viewer, despite her young age, Francisca‘s actions are cruel, brutal and strange. How can this young child possibly engage in such behavior!? Never once does she entertain the notion of calling the authorities or balk at her father’s insistence that she remedy the situation. However, to her these actions were simply the most practical way to fix the issue. And right there, in that choice, a bevy of philosophical questions float to the surface. For one, in the case of a young, developing child, are the ideas of right or wrong subjective? Are Francisca‘s actions an inherent dark part of her nature, or are they a result of her environment? Due to her isolation from the outside world and its influences, in conjunction with the example set by her parents, there are certainly arguments to be had.
As we enter the next chapter in Francisca‘s story, we learn that her father has passed away. While the circumstances of his death remain vague, it is quickly evident that Francisca‘s processing of the event is…different. For the first time in her life, Francisca truly begins to feel the weight of her loneliness. Unable to accept that her father is dead, she continues her daily rituals as best she can, often utilizing her father’s corpse. These outwardly strange choices speak to not only her inherent fear of loneliness but the possible effect of her stunted emotional development due to the lack of her mother. Pesce leaves the air of Francisca‘s actions scented with subtlety and mystery, which only furthers her character intrigue. One of the few times we see Francisca exhibit any real fear, sadness or grief is when she bathes her father’s corpse. In that one brief scene, she allows her feelings to overtake her. This moment allows her to fully acknowledge her need for human connection which leads her down some new and dark pathways.
One of these paths leads Francisca to a dive bar a few towns over. After successfully picking up a young woman named Kimiko (Clara Wong), they return to Francisca‘s farmhouse. Kimiko quickly senses that something is not quite right, but sadly never makes a proper exit. Despite Kimiko‘s end never clearly being shown on screen, clever editing leaves no question to her fate. Once again, aside from being a filmmaking choice, this quick edit speaks to Francisca‘s mental process as well. For her, the idea of further abandonment and loneliness was simply too much to bear and her desperation resulted in Kimiko‘s tragic end. The lack of on-screen kill only strengthens Francisca‘s disconnect from the horror she is capable of perpetrating. For her the process was simply another problem to be solved and an evolution of her dark nature.
“Pesce leaves the air of Francisca’s actions scented with subtlety and mystery…”
The second path that Francisca attempts to head down involves her old friend Charlie. For years it appears that Francisca has been tending to Charlie like some sort of barnyard pet. With her most recent attempt at human connection providing less than ideal results, Francisca begins to look at Charlie in a new way. In this moment, the highly disturbing selfishness of Francisca‘s mindset becomes evident. Despite his own incredibly heinous acts, Francisca has kept Charlie confined, barely alive for years. Only now, when she deems him necessary does she bring him into the house, bathes him and attempts to initiate her idea of a normal relationship. In her own weird way, this is Francisca trying to cope and experimenting with ways to calm her overwhelming loneliness. However, when Charlie attempts to escape during the night, Francisca murders him in an intimately unfeeling way. As she cradles his head, the frame is focused on her face as we hear the knife plunging into Charlie again and again. For her, the violence and brutality is secondary to the final result and the scene’s composition and editing support that narrative.
With all her immediate possibilities at human connection foiled, we see Francisca once again give in to her loneliness. Lost, both inwardly and outwardly, for the first time we really see Francisca begin to emotionally panic. After a night alone in the woods, she hitch-hikes home with a young mother and her baby Antonio. Misinterpreting the chance encounter as a sign from her mother, Francisca abducts the young child and incapacitates the mother. Now fully experienced in subduing a captive, Francisca gives the mother the ‘Charlie Treatment’, completely calloused to the mother’s emotions and situation.
Unlike Charlie, Antonio and his mother are truly innocent. Therefore, Francisca‘s incredibly messed up actions hold an unprecedented amount of weight. For her, Antonio solves her need for companionship in the most ideal way possible. A child guarantees a fulfillment of companionship and purpose on the most basic level. The structure that Pesce has been building for Francisca throughout the film finally all comes together in this final, brazen act. By setting the stage for Francisca‘s thought process so beautifully throughout the film, we don’t support Francisca‘s actions…but we understand them. It’s a complex, challenging place to be as a viewer, and it’s a position that Pesce fully embraces.
“Pesce creates a character that challenges audiences on a deeply emotional level […] Francisca is a character that will linger, haunting your thoughts and emotions.”
As we jump ahead in Francisca‘s story, we see a young Antonio prove to be a big more inquisitive and persistent than Francisca would like. Once Antonio discovers the woman held captive in the barn, it’s simply a matter of time before an escape is imminent. Syncing up with the aforementioned cold open, the film’s events catch up with Francisca as law enforcement and the public at large get involved with her story. Fighting her abandonment and loneliness issues until the very end, Francisca ultimately loses her internal war in the most dramatic of fashions.
Aside from the incredibly beautiful viewing experience that Pesce offers audiences with The Eyes of My Mother, the true strength lies with Francisca. While we have historically had any number of sympathetic, introspective male-centric serial killer films, it’s rare to find such a film with a female lead protagonist. Further separating Francisca from her counterparts that often get placed in rape-revenge scenarios, Francisca‘s descent into darkness is equal parts trauma and innate. Perhaps her trajectory was inevitable, regardless of her mother’s murder. And yet again, perhaps it was a direct result because of it. By executing, portraying and following the events of Francisca‘s experience so effectively subtle, Pesce creates a character that challenges audiences on a deeply emotional level. Long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up, Francisca is a character that will linger, haunting your thoughts and emotions.
What are your feelings on The Eyes of My Mother? Do you find Francisca a sympathetic villain? Tell us what you think over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!