A niche subgenre of movies that have often struck a cord with me are ones that attempt to find personal tragedy within a national one — mixing the intimate with a vastness of either scope or ideas. Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features is one of those movies; a feature debut that looks at one mother’s humanitarian search within the national collateral damage of the ongoing drug war. That mother is Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who from the beginning is on the search for her underage son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela). It was two months prior that he agreed to migrate to the U.S. with his best friend, Rigo (Armando García), in hopes of overcoming their adverse economic circumstances. But in that time, no news of the boys’ whereabouts has arrived. And it’s soon learned, in the sobering opening scene, that Rigo is dead, as his mother recognizes her child, who sports a pronounced facial birthmark, in a photo of the dead. Yet there’s still no answers for Magdalena. Lacking unique identifying features, in the eyes of the authorities, Jesús is just another nameless dream-seeker the earth swallowed.
So Magdalena walks on in search of him, every step leading her closer to closure — or so she expects. She becomes a private investigator of sorts, trudging through an arid landscape of mass graves, burnt bodies, and missing buses, where a recovered bag becomes her child’s only tangible remains. Identifying Features, though, doesn’t force her to vocalize her excruciating worry, the guilt she may harbor for agreeing to let him leave or the rage at the magnitude of the devastation that’s become the Mexican normality. “My son might be dead, but I have to know,” is about all she says. Perhaps only a mother could ever conjure such tireless strength amid crippling despair; she wants only peace of mind. As her search gets going, we soon meet Miguel (David Illescas), a young man trekking back to his rural home after being deported from the States.
Eventually, Magdalena and Miguel cross paths, and the somewhat obvious nature of their budding bond — she’s trying to find her son, he’s hoping to reunite with his mother — is about as conventional as Identifying Features dares to get. It’s more often a film that implies rather than shows, being visceral without ever succumbing to any explorative shock of cartel violence. Which is seen strongly through the film’s imagery of oppressive melancholy, as Valadez makes pointed choices about what to hide and what to highlight; her camera often seems as terrified as the characters, hiding as it does behind windows and other objects, surveying scenes from a tense distance. Bypassing politics to get closer to an emotional truth about Mexico’s drug war, eventually Valadez starts to veer the film into a more allegorical direction, with more nightmarish sequences and bigger narrative swings that don’t always land. Yet Valadez still holds a relatively firm grip on the material, even as Magdalena searches for answers she may never know. A slow burn odyssey that partially expands notions on what a border story is, Identifying Features is a rich, eerily devastating window into the search for truth.
Identifying Features is available in Virtual Cinemas
The White Tiger
As you might be able to guess before you even begin viewing it, the fabled beast that gives The White Tiger its title isn’t the only caged animal in Ramin Bahrani’s new movie. The film presents its wily antihero, Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav), with a difficult question. Will this low-caste villager turn out be the white tiger, the rare animal born only once in a generation? Or will he just be another cooped-up rooster which, the movie suggests, makes up the majority of Indian society? Balram, introducing himself as a successful business owner in 2010, answers that question with much assurance: His story is one of grim, odds-defying personal triumph. Adapted from Aravind Adiga’s award-winning novel of the same title, The White Tiger is a dark satire of upward mobility connected with a pitch of high-risk business plan. Balram, being ambitious, argues in his wall-to-wall, overbearing narration and fourth-wall breaking that it isn’t enough for a poor man seeking to rise above his station. Deception, theft, bribery, and worse all have their place in every true professional’s toolkit. “In my country, it pays to play it both ways. The Indian entrepreneur has to be straight and crooked, mocking and believing, sly and sincere, all at the same time,” he says.
With his eager-to-please façade and steady stream of lies, we flashback to see Balram’s beginnings, as he lands a job as a driver for his obscenely wealthy landlord, who’s known as the Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar). It’s there where he begins to stay straight with the man’s thuggish older son, the Mongoose (Vijay Maurya), but intermingle and sweet-talk with his Westernized younger son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and his Brooklyn-born wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas). The bifurcation of upstairs and downstairs becomes all too literal in the difference between the lavishly appointed hotel suites Ashok and Pinky occupy during an extended trip to Delhi, while Balram and other servants and drivers sleep in a dank underground parking garage. But the pit between the haves and have-nots is never illustrated more starkly than when tragedy unexpectedly strikes and the family’s security is threatened. With terrifying swiftness, Balram quickly becomes a convenient scapegoat, destroying whatever illusions of privilege he may have thought he had in the household and awakening his rebellious spirit.
As a filmmaker with a career-long interest in dramas about poverty and economic injustice, these simmering class tensions may seem a bit upbeat for Bahrani, but with The White Tiger he still has a modesty in his filmmaking, a reluctance to sensationalize its protagonist’s poverty, and an avoidance to exoticize his setting. Bahrani may be as much a cultural outsider as the Chinese premier that Balram is addressing in his narration, but every decision he makes does feel made to address everything with a honesty or a matter-of-factness. But as much as the moral vision has a clarity to it, the film simply can’t sustain its gleefully amoral ride from start to finish. (Especially since it’s not as nimble as it thinks it is.) Bahrani’s instinctive pessimism and refusal of sentimentality serve him well, but there is something about the dark cynicism at the heart of this story that eludes him. Which forces this to feel, at times, hollow. The climax of The White Tiger is unsparingly dark and violent, if also truncated, as if the film were not entirely fulfilled with its conclusions. Balram has by then become a hell of an entrepreneur, but the movie simply can’t close the deal. The White Tiger strives for lively universality in its economic tale, but more often feels lumbering and programmatic.
The White Tiger is available to stream on Netflix