‘Identifying Features’ Crafts A Harrowing Masterpiece of Surreal Cinema (FILM REVIEW)

Rating: A-

Drawing intensely from the Latin American literary tradition of magical realism, Identifying Features is a wild, slow burning tale of hope and hopelessness that unspools its secrets methodically and precisely over the course of its 90-minute run time. Ostensibly a simple tale, co-writer/director Fernanda Valadez has created a stunning debut feature that firmly establishes her as an important voice in Mexican cinema.

The surreal atmosphere begins almost immediately, though the effect is initially subtle. Set in the deserts outside of Guanajuato, the ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere is well established before the film’s plot even rightly begins. Valadez, utilizing a mostly handheld cinematography, creates a world of dizzying absurdity and makes it difficult to find ones footing. The result is a film that’s as captivating as it is beautiful, and as beautiful as it is gut wrenching,

Identifying Features is never a difficult film to watch, and perhaps even more difficult to understand, but its central beauty is undeniable. The heartbreaking story deals with everything from migrants seeking better lives in America, the violence and tyranny of the cartels, the dizzying bureaucracy, the meaning of truth, and hope that can be found in despair. It is a stunning and powerful film that’s more than worthy of consideration.

The film follows Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), whose son has gone missing in his attempt to cross the border into Arizona. After several months of no contact, she attempts to contact the authorities for any information. When told that he might be dead, she journeys to a border town in the hopes of finding out what might have happened to him. Soon, however, Magdalena is thrust into the labyrinthine world of bureaucrats and criminals while truth remains always just out of reach.

The dreamlike atmosphere of Identifying Features feels, at first, like a simple choice of style, thrusting us into a world of uncertainty and doubt. However, the longer the film continues, the deeper Valadez takes into the surreal reality of Magdalena, a mother who just wants to know if her son is alive or dead. As dreams often do, it quickly morphs into a nightmare as Magdalena meets one uncaring bureaucrat after another, none of whom can (or will) give her answers.

Hernandez gives a heartbreaking performance as Magdalena, fully embodying a mother’s heartbreak and allowing the audience to feel her pain and confusion at the situation. She wears the weathered look of life and motherhood in every line on her face, even as she has to steel herself against the powerful forces that oppose her.

Essentially a journey film, Valadez has no intentions of making this a simple A to B tale; rather, she uses Magdalena as a way to take us inside the tribulations of migrant workers and their families, showing us the dangers they face on their treks to betterment. Identifying Features is a harrowing, emotional tale that humanizes an issue more complex than pundits would have us believe. While slow to start, the story that unfolds is pure cinema, awash with poetic imagery and powerful feeling that you won’t soon forget.

Identifying Features is now playing in select virtual theaters

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