An austere, gorgeously shot parable of chaos and loss in modern Mexico, “Identifying Features” is an assured directorial debut from Fernanda Valadez, an audience award winner at Sundance 2020, and a tour of hell on earth. It’s playing as a virtual screening via the Brattle Theatre.
Two teenage boys, Rigo (Armando García) and Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), leave their homes in Guanajuato for promised jobs in Arizona; they never arrive. Their mothers, Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) and Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), go to the police but are told there is little to do but search the photographs of people recently killed by drug cartels and gangs. Jesús is identified as one of the corpses retrieved from a shallow grave, but Rigo is not. Magdalena heads out on a search that crisscrosses the country and widens into a spare portrait of a dying civilization.
At the same time, “Identifying Features” follows Miguel (David Illescas), who’s being deported to Mexico after five years working in the United States as an undocumented immigrant. The film slowly brings these two, shell-shocked young man and weary Mother Courage, together across a landscape emptied of comfort. Magdalena hears of an old man (Manual Campos) who may have been on the bus with the two boys and sets out toward an area controlled by a criminal army; Miguel joins her to find his own mother.
Where another filmmaker — perhaps a male one — might emphasize violence, action, and macho nihilism (I’m thinking of you, “Sicario”), Valadez takes the opposite approach. “Identifying Features” is hushed to a fault, following Magdalena and Miguel on their dovetailing odysseys with long takes and eerie ambient chords on the soundtrack. The film’s Mexico is a depopulated one, its people dead or chased off and the perpetrators doing ugly business elsewhere. We are invited to share the viewpoint and metabolism of people who endure catastrophe because they must, year after year, century after century. Valadez and her co-writer, Astrid Rondero, are interested in locating the humanity in a society bent on stamping it out, and they find it in the face of a tired old woman who won’t stop until she finds her son.
The film’s quietness and its visual beauty — the cinematographer, Claudia Becerril Bulos, fills the wide screen with artfully framed images — are deceptive. “Identifying Features” leads its characters to the edge of the pit and invites them, and us, to look at the horrors within, filmed with a realism that edges into a dark and slightly cliched surrealism. The movie ultimately seems to suggest that the evils unleashed upon Mexico come from a place beyond humankind, which seems an easy way out after all Magdalena and Miguel have been put through. That said, this remains a terrifying cinematic vision that can’t be ignored, from a young filmmaker who won’t be.
Directed by Fernanda Valadez. Written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Starring Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas. Virtually screening via the Brattle (www.brattlefilm.org). In Spanish, with subtitles. 99 minutes. Unrated (as R: violence).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.