The Austin Chronicle

Identifying Features

Not rated, 95 min. Directed by Fernanda Valadez. Starring Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Ana Laura Rodríguez, Juan Jesús Varela, Armando García, Laura Elena Ibarra.

REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Jan. 22, 2021

Numbers have a way of slicing through to the heart of things. And while they can often be manipulated by treacherous agendas, examining certain statistics has a particular way of jolting one out of (or into) the current weltschmerz. Well it jolts, anyway. I will always feel a profound anxiety reflecting that 74 million people thought reelecting Trump was a good idea, and utterly dismayed that the COVID-19 death rate in the States is projected at half a million by the end of February, a grim one year mark. Another number, smaller but no less troubling, is this: 73,000 people are currently missing in Mexico, almost half of them reported since 2018. For some perspective, imagine the entirety of students and faculty of UT-Austin simply vanishing. Fernanda Valadez’s startling debut, Identifying Features, breathes a handful of those numbers to life, examining the horror, frustrations, and ultimate toll of this crisis of “the disappeared.”

Jesús (Varela) tells his mother, Magdalena (Hernández) he is leaving their home in Guanajuato. With his friend Rigo (García), the two teens begin the journey north, to Arizona, wading away in the mist and tall feather grass. Two months go by with no word, so Magdalena and Rigo’s mother Chuya (Ibarra) venture from their village, seeking help from local authorities. Told indifferently that there is “no crime to pursue,” they are nevertheless handed one of many binders filled with photos of unidentified bodies: bound, tortured, burned, life reduced to viscera. Rigo is among them, but not Jesús, and Magdalena latches on to this barest seedling of hope to search for her son. Clues lead her to conclude that the boys were on a bus to Juárez, when it was stopped by bandits, with only a few survivors. Seeking out one of those survivors in Ocampa, Magdalena meets up with Miguel (Illescas), who, deported from the U.S., is returning to his home there. Their odyssey takes them through an existential landscape of ghosts, living and dead, to an end that is surprising and inevitable.

Valadez, with co-writer Astrid Rondero, have made a beautifully stark meditation on grief. Early on, Magdalena meets Olivia (Rodríguez), a doctor who was called in to identify her son. Olivia refuses to positively identify the body, partly because it is burned, but more importantly, because if she does, she will have abandoned that strand of belief. Magdalena staves off grieving for her own by clinging to a familiar duffel bag seen here, a rumor heard in a shelter there. Identifying Features has a minimalist aesthetic that works fluidly with the material. Magdalena is often shot framed by windows, looking in, looking out, looking. Her recurring dream of Jesús returning to their home, through the mist and the feather grass, becomes ever more opaque. An unsettling feeling hums through the film, and remains well after. Less of a jolt, then; call it a sustained current.

Available now as a virtual cinema release.

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