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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Identifying Features (2021)

There’s a quiet devastation that lingers beneath the surface of Identifying Features. It softly rumbles, dislodging the dirt and sand beneath the characters’ feet, not quite knowing when it will give and finally swallow them whole. Fernanda Valadez co-writes and directs this border drama that follows Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), a woman in search of her son who is reportedly dead after he leaves to cross the border from Mexico into America in search of work. She eventually links up with Miguel (David Illescas), a recently deported young man returning home in hopes of reuniting with his own family.

Valadez manages to capture a story that is cruel, vicious and disconcerting in its beautiful surreal undertones. Magdalena's journey takes her through whispers about a crime syndicate operating and preying on the border, killing and disposing of their victims. It’s an eventual road Magdalena has to eventually cross, and even though we know it’s coming, it still provides surprises and turns that are terrifying and strangely beautiful. I am probably way off here, but instances like this in Identifying Features reminds me a lot of Apocalypse Now - the closer she gets towards the heart of darkness, the fear of the unknown grows stronger.

One of the notable strengths of Identifying Features that is impossible to ignore is how the film takes advantage of the unpredictable and unknowable nature of silence, much in the same way something like No Country For Old Men achieved. It slithers slowly across the Mexican desert, preying on Magdalena’s impending grief that could very well spring on her the moment his death is all but confirmed. Most of the film has a deafening silence to it, with dialogue clear and sharp enough to cut through the stillness that permeates throughout, with Valadez orchestrating this looming sense of dread by maneuvering the use of sound with expert precision. Even though Magdalena refuses to accept that her son could possibly be dead, the sound design of the film has that ringing quietness that suggests grief is lingering upon her. When I have experienced a tragedy in the past, the quietness of the world feels like it is caving in on me, creating sort of an anechoic chamber around me. Magdalena’s situation feels a lot like this to me, with the only escape being for her to actually find her son and finally be rid of this fear she has. When music does occasionally feature, its purpose is just as intentional and as powerful as the lack of it. When Miguel arrives back in Mexico, we track behind him, the music growing louder and stronger the deeper he goes back into his own country, pushing him towards the next step of his destiny. Much in the same manner as No Country For Old Men, the film dictates the audience's journey into the unknown, removing the heavy use of music (or in No Country's case, no music at all), as opposed to musical cues influencing and steering them towards how they should feel.

The screenplay also allows for Valadez and her team to bring Identifying Features to life with vivid, yet dream-like detail. Even the use of flashbacks deep into the film is crafted with a clever, creative instinct. Normally I roll my eyes at a sudden flashback that hasn’t been used at all in the narrative until it is convenient to throw exposition in our faces, often feeling like a cheat code to me, but the way in which they make use of them in Identifying Features only adds to the almost mythical element the film possesses. It’s creative and entirely necessary when it happens, eliminating any doubt I had moments into its inclusion.

Mercedes Hernández is outstanding as Magdalena. Her instincts as a performer allow her to avoid the obvious quirks and choices one would make as a mother desperately searching for her son. There are no hysterical overreactions or emotional breakdowns pandering for “wows” from audience members. It’s a beautiful, subdued performance that is rooted in the world that Valadez and her team have crafted visually and sonically.

None of Identifying Features ever feels like a lucky accident, it’s a masterfully woven journey made by an assured filmmaker unwilling to compromise story, intent and its ability to surprise and challenge you. Mexico has developed yet another filmmaker one should take note of, and even though it is only January, it’s not hard to put Identifying Features down as a very real and early candidate for film of the year. Independent films are keeping our interests alive, and with films like Identifying Features, don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Identifying Features is now available to watch through virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee.

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