Three movies set in “the troubles” along the Border have come out in same week. “The Marksman” is a generic Liam Neeson action picture without the nerve to be either a racist redemption tale or a meaningful look at a political hot button issue. “No Man’s Land” has better intentions but a much muddier and patronizing story.
“Identifying Features,” by Fernanda Valadez is far and away the best of the lot. Lyrical and understated with a cruel beauty and story laced with allegory and a hint of magical realism, it lets us see the rippling trauma of this place and this time through the eyes of mothers.
And it’s totally a Mexican tale, from its point of origin — coincidentally, the same town that is the final destination in “No Man’s Land” — to its finish line, a story told entirely from the Mexican point of view.
This is the horror of Northern Mexico as seen through the eyes of those living through it, families disrupted by the desperation of trying to flee to Los Estados Unidos and the murderous gang gauntlet those undertaking this journey must pass through to just reach the border.
Two teens from outside of Guanajuato make plans to leave. We don’t hear the name “Jesús” (Juan Jesús Varela) when he tells his mother he’s going with Rigo. We don’t see who his mother is.
That’s the first way Valadez, who co-wrote the script, makes us reach out for the film. Nothing in this story drops in our lap.
Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) and Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) fret over not hearing from their boys for months and go to the police. The cops shrug them off with a “if you gave consent (for them to leave) there’s no crime to report.”
But then they’re handed the book– a big fat photo file of bodies that have turned up in the north just in the past two months. One mother will get an awful moment of closure, the other will have to go north herself to try and track her son.
Olivia (Ana Laura Rodríguez) is also headed north. But as we’ve seen her performing eye surgery, she’s going by plane. She too has a missing son. Being affluent, he didn’t try to cross the border, so far as she knows. He disappeared on a drive back from Monterrey.
Miguel (David Ilescas) we meet in a U.S. immigration court as he’s being summarily deported. He’s an “IA,” an illegal alien. He has money and he was heading home anyway. Now he’s on the books as an “illegal” and on foot, trying to get back to his village near Ocampo.
The story weaves these lives together through the odyssey Magdalena embarks on to find her son or get closure about his fate.
Valadez, who co-wrote the script, shows us a sample of the terrors people face on the trail. Take a bus, run the risk of it being hijacked with all the passengers robbed, raped and ransomed or murdered. Road block “checkpoints” are run by gangs with, it’s implied, police assistance.
The confused, half-blind old man (never seen) who narrates in an untranslated dialect the story of the bus he was on says “El Diablo” committed the crimes that followed. And through his eyes we see the horns and pointy tail of a murderer outlined against a bonfire’s light.
We don’t need his words translated. We can see the horror, in silhouette, for ourselves.
Valadez lets her actor’s faces do most of the talking here. It’s a music-free film of long, tense silences and splashes of fraught shakedowns and terror. Legions of innocents can only avert their eyes when the Men (or boy soldiers) with Guns show up to search, harass and menace everyone with impunity.
She captures the harsh beauty of the region and the ugliness that is emptying it out and filling mass graves.
But the most haunting images of all are still shots — Polaroids of the dead, their clothing and baggage, their “Identifying Features” — which the police show to Chuya and Magdalena. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that rail car filled with rotting shoes of the doomed at the Holocaust Museum in Washington — heart-breaking and horrifying at a primal level.
And it brings home the ugly truth to the parents of the dead and the governments complicit in this cross-border disaster. There’s no closing your eyes or blocking it out with a wall. And it won’t stop until we all have the guts to stare at it and take the first serious steps to do something about it.
MPA Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez
Credits: Directed by Fernanda Valadez, script Astrid Rondero, Fernanda Valadez. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:37