Review: Identifying Features

The problems and pleasures of watching films by stylists-in-formation are entwined. Individual compositions, schemes of staging, and sequences within those films can attain visual and aural expressiveness denied even to seasoned practitioners; but there can be a kind of callousness involved in wielding an aesthetic prowess without an accompanying emotional surety. The thoughtless formal intensity of Alejandro Landes’s Monos is one example, and the closing section of Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features is another. But for the most part, Valadez’s debut feature moves at an assured pace, tracking Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) as she leaves Guanajuato to find her son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), who has gone missing trying to cross the border into Arizona. Jesús’s friend is confirmed dead, and his bag is identified nearby. Prized too, and intersecting with Magdalena’s search, are the perspectives of Olivia (Ana Laura Rodríguez), in pursuit of a son long thought dead, and Miguel (David Illescas), a young man recently deported back to Mexico having reached the U.S. The switch-ups and alignments of point-of-view are consistent with cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos’s strategy of putting the camera directly in or approximate to the positions occupied by the characters, often in ways that build to a kind of thesis statement: when interviewed by authorities (police, immigration agents), the scene is shot from the view of the person conducting the interview, so only Magdalena and Miguel are shown, rendering those in power faceless and without sympathy. The camera asserts its fidelity to the characters, staying by Magdalena’s side throughout her arduous travels, keeping her close, remaining attentive to Hernández’s almost concealed gestures of hurt (such as the wince and twitch of her left cheek as she receives inconvenient news); and, when Miguel returns to Mexico, the camera assumes a position behind him, trailing tight on his heels in travelling shot for almost the time it takes to walk the concourse. Valadez and co-writer Astrid Rondero design the film, then, at a sympathetic and dependable proximity to the characters, which amounts to an act of holding when faced with the colluding forces of an indifferent bureaucracy and the inhuman violence of drug-gangs. But the final stretch cedes the ground to another perspective, this one more a narrative intrusion, and the film enacts a retreat into symbolism reminiscent of Carlos Reygadas wherein it loses its emotional centre. The infernal imagery has an immediate suggestiveness, but its dark allure is foreclosed with a thud, unbalancing the more careful work preceding it. 

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