This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime. Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.
The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.
The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.
Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.
The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score by the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.
I watched this film without much preparation. I knew the title and I had read that it had links to that important and deep-rooted issue of ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. But I did expect that the main focus would be the crime and its investigation in some way. It isn’t. Instead it’s a narrative about someone who almost unknowingly becomes part of the crime scenario and who then suffers the consequences. The film is presented in Academy ratio. The only reason for this as far as I can see is that it represents the increasing sense of entrapment felt by the central character Cecilia.
This is an intelligent and very well-made film with a stunning central performance by Elisa Carricajo, who is well-known in the theatre in Argentina. Much of the cast comprises non-professional actors and the technical credits are very impressive especially sound design, editing and cinematography. The writer-director Francisco Márquez was very clear about his intentions in the Q&A that followed the screening. The ‘common crime’ here refers to both the ‘institutional violence’ of the Argentinian police (which Márquez argues amounts to daily deaths of young men in custody or on the street) and to the ‘blind eye’ of the Argentinian middle class when it comes to action to stop this violence – which perpetuates the history of ‘disappearing’ those deemed as dangerous by the authorities. These disappeared are nearly all young men living in poverty conditions.
It’s very difficult to comment on the narrative without spoiling it for future audiences so I’ll just outline a couple of events and characters without going into too many details. Cecilia is a sociology teacher in a local university (a very low-key institution, but perhaps that just reflects the low budget of the film?). She is in the process of applying for a more senior job at the university which is one of the pressures on her, although everyone expects her to get the job. She lives in a small single-story dwelling with her small son Juan who must be 10 or 11? Her childcare is shared with the boy’s father who seems to have him a couple of days a week. Cecilia doesn’t seem like much of a cook and she also employs a cleaner cum housekeeper Nebe. This gives her a little extra time to prepare her lectures. It’s a while since I’ve been presented with quotes from Althusser and later on a pair of her ex-students ask her advice on preparing an abstract for a paper. They seem to be an encouraging pair of academic rebels who adopt a Gramscian approach – hurrah! Cecilia’s reaction to their request for advice is interesting.
The central incident comes one night when Cecilia is alone in the house, awake during a storm when she hears someone pounding on her door and crying for help. Peering through the blinds, she sees a figure who might be Nebe’s grown-up son Kevin who Cecilia had met briefly a couple of days earlier. But it’s the middle of the night and Cecilia is frightened. She goes back to bed without opening the door. Later it is revealed that Kevin has ‘disappeared’. Cecilia visits Nebe in what is considered as the ‘rough’ part of town, reassuring Nebe that she will pay her while she takes time off and campaigns to find her son, but not mentioning the night-time incident.
From this point on, Cecilia begins a downward spiral as the failure to help her visitor in the night begins to prey on her. The second half of the film depends very much on Elisa Carricajo’s excellent performance and the subtle sound design. I also feel that the costumes she is given to wear seem particularly unflattering and it’s interesting to see her smoking. I don’t know what the smoking levels in Argentina are like now but in a UK context, a teacher smoking is someone who might be considered as ‘under stress’. The script rather conveniently prevents any later scenes of her teaching – which is where I would expect the stress to become more obvious. But I was shocked by Cecilia’s behaviour at a friend’s dinner table.
I think there are a number of films which similarly deal with middle-class angst about ‘not doing the proper thing’, sometimes a question of morality and sometimes an almost criminal act. In that sense this film is generic. In the second half of the film the director also uses some familiar devices from psychological horror stories. Most of these are used in subtle ways through editing and sound effects but some – the shower curtain ripped open to reveal nothing, a toy racetrack with cars still running in an empty house – are perhaps too familiar. Listening to the director and appreciating his approach it is clear he was attempting a more profound statement about the issue in Argentina and the film aims for a level of social realism. He had some success with a previous film also raising questions about ‘disappearances’ and his worked has been bracketed with that of Lucretia Martlel’s The Headless Woman (2008). I’m not sure how much I enjoyed Un crimen común, but I admire its production. However, I think it might be a tough sell to distributors and I think audiences would need some preparation if they are not to be disappointed because of expectations about a crime fiction thriller.
The trailer below (with English subs) reveals a little more of the plot and illustrates Cecilia’s decline.
Many ‘subversives’ disappeared during the fascist dictatorship in Argentina in the late 1970s/early 1980s. From 1977 The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ensured the missing were not forgotten and I was surprised to learn they are (at least two years ago) still having to protest. The Official Story, apparently based on a true story, is a gripping political melodrama focusing on bourgeoise wife, Alicia (a Cannes winning performance by Norma Aleandro), who suspects that her adopted five-year old daughter may have been taken from one of the ‘disappeared’.
Aida Bortnik’s and director Luis Puenzo’s script brilliantly draws together numerous strands: Alicia is a history teacher whose class is far more clued up to the way ‘assassins’ are the ones who write history; her husband, Roberto (Héctor Alterio), has close ties to the military but whose brother and dad all but disown him as he berates them as ‘losers’. Central is the relationship between Alicia and her daughter which is suddenly thrown into doubt when an old friend, Ana, returns from exile. The scene when the friends are drunkenly reminiscing and Ana tells Alicia the truth about why she went away without saying anything is extraordinary. At first Alicia is chuckling along but the significance of what Ana is saying clearly doesn’t immediately sink in but then she realises Ana is describing how she was tortured; Aleandro’s performance in this scene is enough to justify watching the film.
Alicia’s cosy, bourgeois is punctured and she then seeks the truth in the face of her husband’s cynicism and worse. In such a male dominated society as Argentina was at the time, it’s not surprising that it required women to join together to seek justice and how brave they were (and are) to do so in the face of male oppression.
In the UK we keep hearing from politicians that we shouldn’t upset the extreme right-wing or their violence will get worse. While this may be simple (in more ways than one) politicking because they want PM’s May’s mess of a deal to leave the EU to be voted through today, such appeasement is obviously dangerous. With the new president of Brazil threatening a return to the bad old days of fascist governments in Latin America (usually propped up by America), The Official Story is important in reminding us of the evil perpetrated against ‘the people’ in the region. The film won best foreign film Oscar and whilst those awards are often poor arbiters of taste I suspect they got it right in 1985, only two years after the dictatorship had fallen.
This important event in Manchester on Saturday 19th May features the UK premiere of The Echo of Pain of the Many – the story of how filmmaker Ana Lucía Cuevas learned the shocking truth about what happened to her brother, one of the ‘Disappeared’ of Guatemala in 1984.
Lucía is based in Manchester and she will introduce the film on Saturday after presenting it in Washington earlier this month. We’ll be attending the Manchester event and a full report will appear here next week. For details of how to get to WFA, download the leaflet here.
Read more about the background to the film here:
‘Unredacted’ Blog (US)
Trailer on Vimeo: