Mexico, Spain / Languages: Spanish / Subtitled
A take in the final act of Fernanda Valdez’s chilling debut, Identifying Features, is a discordant and rapturous display of magical realism. Showcasing rogue violence against a bus of asylum-seekers by curdling fire—the orchestrator of terror’s silhouette grows horns and a tail.
Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) is looking for her son, Jesus (Juan Jesús Varela). With only a battered knapsack found on the edge of the U.S. border, and the remains of his best friend in a body bag, she’s unwavering in the resolve to find the truth. Aloof government officials in alabaster offices tell Magdalena to take a stipend of money and simply accept her son as a statistic. Hernández’s embodiment of motherly desperation and hope is beautifully devastating.
Unconvinced of her son’s fate, and driven by an unending motherly determination, she journeys by foot and coyote-navigated convoys through the dead of night. In her journey, she finds people of similar circumstance, such as young Miguel (David Illescas), a recently deported migrant, who traverses the border once more following his mother’s disappearance.
The ending, hinged in brutal realism, is grim.
As a Mexican myself, Identifying Features effectively portrays the kind of encroaching terror that I’m all too familiar with. I often find it hard to write about Mexico, yet Valdez captures the underbelly of what’s happening to Mexican society masterfully.
With a cinematic language that resembles early Claire Denis, Identifying Features is intensely political and unrelenting in it’s story of civil collapse. This dichotomy is handled with precision, and compressed into an air-tight feel of looming doom. Valdez illustrates, through characters that exist on broad ends of Mexico’s economic spectrum, the system’s apathy when it’s own people go without a trace.
In Valdez’s Mexico there’s no room for glorification. She illustrates this through the sudden appearance of a bloodied goat head one morning, the gut wrenching pleas to not cross the border again, and the persistent apathetic response from Mexican bureaucracy.
Often, Mexican cinema, or shall we say, cinema about Mexico, fails to capture what’s been happening to the country for the last few decades — the all-encompassing grip of corruption, the mounting violence, and the way in which the culture has become completely overshadowed by derivative stereotypes.
Blockbusters like Sicario portray the fragility of the country by glorifying drug cartels, punctuating the trope with gratuitous gore and action, and painting Mexico’s Northern neighbours as anything but complicit. But Identifying Features strays from all that, it fictionalizes the experience of real Mexicans—collateral to corruption, who are wedged between a country they no longer recognize, and an asylum that will do anything but.
You’ll want to forget Identifying Features, but you’ll never be able to. Identifying Features captures a horror that needs no face-paint or jump-scares, for it isn’t the kind that washes away once the credits roll.
Identifying Features opened on Kino Marquee virtual cinema on January 22.