Identifying Features, from first-time director Fernanda Valadez, is like water in the desert for the mostly myopic genre of “la frontera” action films that depict the migration crisis at the southern border of the United States.
Shot on location in rural Guanajuato, Mexico, this poignant film (which scooped two awards in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance fest and will be distributed in the U.S. by Kino Lorber) boasts meticulously composed frames that both ground the narrative and push it forward. It’s a spare, refreshing take on a deeply disturbing situation.
A movie about the border situation that explicitly avoids the Sicario or Narcos route of the unrelentingly violent drug-war epic indeed is a welcome change. Valadez signals her arrival as a young filmmaker, unapologetically both Mexican and female, with well-earned confidence in her artistic voice.
Acutely aware of the large vacuum that her movie begins to fill, Valadez and co-writer Astrid Rondero tell the story from the perspective of the kind of character that traditionally hasn’t been the protagonist in narrative features about the U.S.-Mexico border: a middle-aged woman who has compassion and grit in equal measure. When Magdalena’s (Mercedes Hernández) son, Jesus, tells her he is leaving to live in the States along with his friend Rigo, she isn’t thrilled, but she helps him pack a bag anyway. After two months of not hearing from either of their sons, the men’s mothers visit the police and tragically identify Rigo’s body in a thick binder full of unidentified victims.
But the trail is cold for Jesus. Determined to find out the truth, Magdalena becomes a dogged investigator whose mission takes her from the migrant shelter to the bus station to the home of a recluse in the mountains. Along the way, she crosses paths with Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who has just been deported by the United States, where he has been living for five years. The movie becomes a moving familial love story between two people who eventually come to regard each other as family.
Miguel is on his way home to the Ocampo region, and soon discovers that militias have ravaged the area — including the home where he and his mother once lived. Miguel begs his padrino (godfather) to tell him where his mother is, but we hear him say in voiceover: “No one is left. Leave.”
The dialogue is often spare, with Valadez emphasizing the visuals. The creative camerawork makes purposeful use of close-ups, both medium and extreme, that show us the main characters’ faces from a multitude of angles. At one point, the camera, positioned on the ground, looks upward to capture Magdalena’s vibrant face framed against the backs of several unidentified people whom she grills for information about her son. Often, we watch Magdalena and Miguel move in and out of the frame; then, a beat or two later, we’re up close again, taking things in from their point of view.
Valadez uses the motif of blurriness to increase suspense and dramatic tension throughout the film. Suggesting both a protectiveness over the characters and a more purely aesthetic flourish, the technique is interesting at first, but feels a bit overdone by the end. Overall, though, the film’s stylistic approach places an unmistakable and compelling veil of empathy around Magdalena, Miguel and the migrant workers just trying to survive amid violence, economic desperation and political strife.
We should be seeing a lot more from Valadez for years to come, and contemporary Mexican cinema will be all the better for it.
Production Companies: Corpulenta, Foprocine, Avanti Pictures, Enaguas Cine, Nephilim Producciones
Distributor: Alpha Violet (U.S. distribution: Kino Lorber)
Cast: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez, Laura Elena Ibarra, Xicoténcatl Ulloa
Director: Fernanda Valadez
Screenwriters: Fernanda Valadez, Astrid Rondero
Producers: Astrid Rondero, Fernanda Valadez, Jack Zagha, Yossy Zagha
Cinematographer: Claudia Becerril Bulos
Editing: Fernanda Valadez, Astrid Rondero, Susan Korda
Music: Clarice Jensen