Shine Your Eyes REVIEW | Berlinale 2020

An early contender for one of the best debuts of the year.

Shine Your Eyes
Shine Your Eyes | © Primo Filmes

A puzzle-box filled with endless details, dynamic characters and a distinct sense of time and place, the São Paulo-set tale of Shine Your Eyes is a rare wonder. A beautiful exploration of immigrant identity, brotherhood and being your own man, it is a complex, multilayered work brimming with acres of humanity and wisdom.

OC Ukeje plays Amadi, a man who seemingly lives under the shadow of his brother Ikenna (Chuk Iwuji). Ikenna was betrothed to another woman back in Nigeria, but cracked under the pressure and high-tailed it to Brazil. Amadi, sent by his mother to bring him back, goes to the building where Ikenna claims to work as a professor, only to find that it has never been used as a university.

Through his sleuth work, Amadi discovers that before his disappearance his brother was convinced there is a code that can crack the secret of the universe, which he believed was a hologram. We follow Amadi through the world of video games, especially League of Legends, horse racing betting (he bets on a horse called Schopenhauer) and cryptic musical melodies written on the back of business cards.

Why has Ikenna pursued this high-minded train of thought, and why has it left him in the deep end? Shine Your Eyes gives us no easy answers, instead exploring whether the paradoxical nature of the immigrant experience — simultaneously straddled between two different cultures — can only be resolved via paradox itself. (This is further stressed by Amadi’s job, sorting real Indian, Brazilian and African hair to be used for fake weaves.) How can one ever feel real when living in a foreign place?

While so many films about the black experience often represent it as a monolith, Shine Your Eyes actively explores the beauty and diversity of the black diaspora. After all, Brazil has the largest African population of any country outside of the continent; making it ripe for a complex immigration study. In the sweetest moments in the movie, Amadi falls for Ikenna’s former lover, a Brazilian woman with no English, who he communicates with through the Google Translate app.

Google Translate has filled the gap that Ikenna couldn’t: allowing people to effectively communicate. The other mysteries of life cannot be so practically solved. Containing so much high minded philosophy — as well as references specific to the Igbo people of Nigeria which I won’t even try to unpack here — there was a real fear throughout the film that Shine Your Eyes couldn’t live up to its own complexity.

But the film succeeds by not even attempting to resolve its own thesis. Instead, it thrives in this unknowability, in the magic spaces between plot points, and in Amadi’s connection to the city of São Paulo. To entertain such enigmas throughout an entire runtime is no easy feat, yet this film avoids both coyness and pretension thanks to the innate likability of OC Ukeje, who is a huge star back in Nigeria. Judging from this performance alone, it’s easy to see why he has won so many awards in Nollywood.

With a square format and a great depth of frame, strikingly contrasting Amadi against the vastness of the cityscape, Shine Your Eyes is a beautiful formal achievement. São Paulo is viewed as an alien planet, full of criss-crossing streets, high-rise modernist architecture and constantly moving people. You could pause any moment of this film and frame it, each shot a work of art. The kind of film one can truly bask in, Shine Your Eyes marks an impressive debut from Brazilian Matias Mariani.

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Shine Your Eyes
An early contender for one of the best debuts of the year, Shine Your Eyes captures the immigrant experience in gorgeous detail.