Although it exists in a world governed and defined by politics, and although its story situates itself at the heart of existing political crises, Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features is, broadly, not an especially political film. The sad, pessimistic events of its narrative, ever narrowing and clarifying from abstract, enigmatic beginnings to an oppressively limited purview by its end, initially derive their potency from the sociopolitical inferences even the most politically ignorant viewer will make, though Valadez and cowriter Astrid Rondero eventually source such potency from raw emotion. Their film starts pensively, even obliquely, a solemn condemnation of governmental incompetence and indifference, then finishes with quiet yet ferocious brutality, an unyielding stare into the deepest, darkest circle of hell.

In a performance so skilled and so emotionally astute it’s hard to express in words, Mercedes Hernández plays Magdalena, a mother who hasn’t heard from her son since he left Guadalajara for the United States months ago. His travelling companion has shown up dead, still in Mexico, the victim of an alleged gang attack on his coach ride north; Mercedes’ son’s bag was also recovered, which authorities decide is sufficient proof of his own death, since many of the bodies found after the attack were burnt beyond recognition. She is convinced by a fellow mother not to capitulate to the authorities’ requests, not to sign their documents confirming her son’s death; she sets off to search for him herself, alone, vulnerable and running ever lower on funds.

There’s not a shred of humor to be found in Identifying Features. Valadez varies the tone and impact of her film with the occasional sidelong stare at the grave absurdity of these ugly circumstances and with increasingly liberal flourishes of overt artistry. At first, her style is simple and somber, leavened only by Hernández’s remarkable naturalism. She breathes life into a film that could otherwise have easily slid into stifling sedentariness; indeed, she’s the only thing that truly seems to breathe in Identifying Features, mitigating its tendency toward serious theatricality with such an ease it almost feels like you’re watching an impeccably filmed documentary.

Once the seriousness becomes impossible to mitigate and the stakes ratchet ever higher, Valadez and cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos make the most of the action’s rural Central American locales in shot after stunning shot. The visual splendor they create borders on ostentatious but is justified in their adroit use of it for story and atmospheric purposes — shorn of its narrative diversity, Identifying Features must imbue the single line of inquiry it pursues toward the end, a single line with a single aim, with some degree of complexity. This is achieved through fabulous use of framing and lighting, establishing a sense of disorientation essential for conveying the protagonists’ fear, peril and confusion.

As it tapers toward a seemingly unavoidable wretched end, some of the tension built up across a consistently evocative series of scenes feels like it might soon dissipate, only for Identifying Features to make its one and only narrative gambit. It’s not so much a twist as it is a daring switch in direction. The sheer gall of it may elicit the instinctive rolling of one’s eyes, yet it makes perfect sense. Valadez and Rondero’s gamble may be hokey in its presentation, concealing its nature from the viewer entirely until the last possible minute, though this presentation is necessary in order to educe the kind of numbing shock it must. If the migration crises plaguing Latin America are as grim societally and, for those involved, as crushing personally as this film insists they are, some small amount of emotional manipulation can be tolerated to make that point as unambiguously as the filmmakers can.

Indeed, Identifying Features’ pivotal last-minute swerve doesn’t so much stop the film dead as it opens it out: from the theater of the screen to the theater of the mind. The devil exists, it says, the violent exploiter of the needy, the desperate and the vulnerable, the blackness in the black hole at the center of a neglected society. But the devil is thus a part of that society and is thus one among us all. Darkness does not need the light to exist, it only needs it to be perceived and it can consume a life entire as quickly as a bus driver pulls on their handbrake. And if you don’t want to see it, don’t go searching for it. Valadez’s film doesn’t have any of the answers to the political questions it skirts around — all it has is the deep, bruising sorrow of those worst affected.

Summary
As powerful as it is problematic, this is a vivid dive into the darkest recesses of a society torn asunder. A bold and highly effective film.
81 %
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