While U.S. attention in recent years has focused on the supposed hordes of “invading” illegal immigrants seeking to cross the southern border, “Identifying Features” is about a separate but related concern: The alarming if unknowable number of those immigrants who go missing, often robbed, kidnapped and/or killed, before they ever reach our soil.
Most of the film’s primary characters are mothers trying to find out what happened to their vanished would-be-émigré offspring, providing Fernanda Valadez’s feature with a compelling subject and some powerful scenes. But the narrative is also frustratingly cryptic, holding back basic intel that might clarify things (or even this story) for viewers unfamiliar with the issues. A film that straddles the line between artful and arty like this one isn’t designed for a wide public. There are moments that are striking, even if the their impact is muddied by a minimalism that at times feel pretentious. “Features” is ultimately worth the sit, but it needn’t have required quite so much effort.
Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) and neighbor Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) are frantic with worry after their teenage sons haven’t been heard from in the two months since they set off from their native Guanajuato (a landlocked state in central Mexico) to find work in the U.S. The authorities offer little help, but when badgered, they show the women a book of corpses recently found — and, horrifically, Chuya’s child is among them. But there’s no proof that Magdalena’s son was also killed by whomever ambushed the northbound bus both boys were riding. Consumed by a need to know her son’s fate, Magdalena pulls together her meager resources and sets off to retrace his route as best she can.
The circuitous path leads her to a city migrant shelter, where she’s tipped to search for an older man who’d already passed through and might have been on that same bus. For a while she’s aided by Olivia (Ana Laura Rodriguez), a middle-class woman whose search for her own kidnapped, likely dead, son has dragged on for four years. Later, Magdalena gets help from Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who’s just been deported after several years in the U.S., and is headed back to the rural home close to where the elusive witness Magdalena is looking for may be.
Unfortunately, it’s in an area now almost bereft of people save the militia types who chased everyone away. This violent takeover and ongoing domination of a tranquil landscape becomes central to “Identifying Features,” so it’s frustrating that Valadez’s and Astrid Rondero’s script refuses to provide viewers with any insight as to the nature of these armed men. Are they part of drug cartels? Are they in league with local police? (At one point, this is hinted at.) The puzzle crosses the line between intriguing and self-defeating once Magdalena finally meets someone who knows what happened to her son’s bus — but he speaks only a dialect she doesn’t understand, and the information goes untranslated.
The central narrative mystery is finally unlocked in a way that’s dramatic enough to outweigh its improbability. But most audiences outside Mexico are unlikely to know the nature of the murderous criminal corruption that imperils so many, and the filmmakers’ refusal to offer a basic explanation will compromise the impact of the story for many. A mythological element only further clouds things — a much-feared figure called El Diablo, eventually glimpsed in shadow with full horns and tail.
Nonetheless, “Identifying Features” is impressive in many ways, from its strong naturalistic performances to the vivid sense of dislocation and vulnerability felt by the principal characters in dangerous or unfamiliar surroundings. The overall aesthetic here is spare to the point of near-abstraction at times, yet there’s room for lyricism in DP Claudia Becerril’s widescreen imagery. This is a confident, accomplished and distinctive feature directorial debut, even if one can’t help being exasperated that so little is learned about the relevant issues by watching it.