As if responding to the pair of notable December releases with surrogate father-daughter storylines – Paul Greengrass’s “News of the World” and George Clooney’s “Midnight Sky” – Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s feature directorial debut “Identifying Features” briefly unites a woman and a young man on parallel searches for long-lost relatives. She is Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who is beginning to believe her son may be dead. He is Miguel (David Illescas), who is hoping against hope that his own mother is not. And while they’re together for only a few heartbreaking scenes in Valadez’s striking drama about searchers who become wanderers (called "Sin Señas Particulares" in Spanish) , the bond is emotionally informed to a sharper pitch than either of those two aforementioned Hollywood projects.
Part of that is because of the time we spend with Magdalena and Miguel before they cross paths, a period that sees them heading in opposite directions but unknowingly towards each other. As Miguel is deported and preparing to cross back into Mexico, the mother’s search for answers in the wake of her son’s disappearance takes her to the border, where body bags fill every inch of steel shelves as though they were casualties of war. That isn’t far from the truth—the worsening crisis of violence and kidnappings in Mexico has escalated to set new homicide records in nearly each of the past several years, with cartels often specifically targeting migrants, according to congressional research. Valadez’s movie – a pseudo-documentary in function, a simmering thriller in form – aims to put a human face to the statistics, while interrogating how desensitized we’ve become to them. It’s a painfully forthright work, revealing infuriating truths about national priorities in how it juxtaposes its most evocative images with a sense of robotic routine, as if an entire country has been robbed of its humanity.
The quietly anguished performances from Hernández and Illescas suggest as much, as does a slight disorientation that keeps the narrative’s compass point constantly quivering on either side of true north, though this makes at least partial stylistic sense for a character study about navigating violence’s aftershocks. For most of its 95-minute runtime, Valadez and fellow screenwriter Astrid Rondero aren’t concerned with depicting the earthquake; this isn’t a movie of explosive external carnage but grounded emotional tensions, represented by lines of worry etched on mothers’ faces and massive catalogues filled with photos of bodies found near the border. The image gets hazy and feathered around the edges as memories are revisited, the lack of clarity made visual as well as emotional. As Miguel prepares for the nighttime re-entering of his home country (capping an impressive display of unbroken cinematography from Claudia Becerril Bulos), he stops to gaze at an endless, intimidating sea of red brakelights ahead of him—as if the universe were telling him to be wary. Isolation and tragedy await him on the road ahead as well.
Though “Identifying Features” is an impressionistic work that magnifies its visual details, it’s the refrains of prolonged unbroken silences accompanying Magdalena’s search and Miguel’s deportation that most strongly places us in their states of mind. The less they speak (and this is a screenplay of few words), the more we understand—it’s a maddeningly effective approach. Information is conveyed with mood instead of data as the movie envelops its audience into the somber psychologies of our characters and a piercing quiet that goes from curious to tragic in the elongated absence of long-awaited reunion. Numbing might be the right word for the dazed filmmaking Valadez employs here, though we come to feel something different as we watch Magdalena continue to push through obstacle after obstacle—an admiration for those who greet uncertainty with an iron-forged will to endure. “Identifying Features” is a story of national tragedy, but also unquestionably of an unassuming kind of heroism that arises from it. The isolation of her search is placed front and center in one of the movie’s most startling images: a God’s-eye shot centering on a tiny boat carrying her across a lake that may as well be an ocean.
At times “Identifying Features” is a difficult watch for the wrong reasons – moments when the lack of clarity threatens to tip into looser investment on our part – until it pivots down the stretch for Magdalena to come face to face with the horror that she spends most of the film following in the footsteps of. Questions are answered, hopes set ablaze in a fiery sequence of moral skin-shedding as Valadez culminates her film with a haunting metamorphosis. It’s ironic that “Identifying Features” begins and ends with images that have us squinting our eyes to make out figures slowly approaching from a distance, because the young director’s boldly asserted intentions are as clear as a sun-spotted day, or otherwise as a flame licking up to make sense of the surrounding night.
"Identifying Features" is not rated. It's available to watch from Kino Lorber via virtual cinemas, starting Friday.
Starring: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez
Directed by Fernanda Valadez
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