Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares)


For those trying to cross the border from Mexico to the United States, the trip can be hell.

(2020) Drama (Kino LorberMercedes Hernåndez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Virela, Ana Laura Rodriguez, Armando Garcia, Laura Elena Ibarra, Juan Pablo Acevedo, Xicoténcati Ulloa, Jessica Martinez Garcia, Maria Luisa Juårez, Ricardo Luna, Juliéta Rodriguez, Iker Valadez Urtaza, Susan Korda, Jorge Escalante, Cynthia Franco, Carlos Valenzuela, Bertha Denton Casillas.  Directed by Fernanda Valadez

 

Immigrants from south of the border have been demonized to the point of ridiculousness; not everyone who comes into the country from Mexico is illegal, not everyone that comes into this country is a criminal, not everyone who comes is illiterate. Most are just ordinary folks trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. I don’t think anyone could possibly disagree with that instinct.

But this isn’t a film about them. It’s not easy or dangerous to migrate from Mexico’s interior to the United States, and uncounted numbers of those who try to get to our border never arrive. They are kidnapped, robbed, raped and often murdered. For their families, it is as if they disappeared off the face of the earth.

Magdalena (Hernandez) had bid goodbye to her teenage son Jesus (Varela) and his best friend Rigo (A. Garcia) who were heading to Arizona where they hoped to find work. But months have gone by and no word from either boy, nothing to say they’d arrived, nor a sign that they had returned. Magdalena and Rigo’s mother Chuya (Ibarra) go to the authorities hoping to get some word, but the authorities either can’t or won’t help. Finally, begrudgingly, they are shown a book full of pictures of corpses that have been recovered – and to the horror of both women, there is Rigo. However, there’s no certain proof that Jesus shared the same fate as Rigo. So as any good mother would do, Magdalena goes off in search of her son, trying to retrace his steps.

It is a dangerous journey, with corrupt officials, cartel killers and unscrupulous coyotes who would murder her in a heartbeat, but doggedly she tries. She gets some help along the way; a sympathetic receptionist at a hostel for migrants; another mother named Olivia (A.L. Rodriguez) who had been searching for her missing son for four years without any sort of word, and lastly from Miguel (Illescas) who had made it to the promised land and spent several years there, only to be captured and deported back to Mexico. Now he’s hoping to reunite with his own mother, but there is no guarantees he will find her.

This is a unique look at the issues facing Mexican migrant workers; the looming threat of violence that hangs over every step of their journey and in fact has insinuated itself into all avenues of Mexican life, as well as the inability of those sources that would ordinarily aid them to provide any sort of protection or assistance. Valadez tells her story simply and starkly, without a lot of frills although there are a few and when they show up they are kind of jarring.

One thing Valadez and cinematographer Claudia Becerril have is a good eye; the shots are exquisitely framed and photographic effects are often utilized to illustrate subtle points (a flashback of the day Jesus informed Magdalena he was leaving is shot through a dirty glass window, giving a kind of faded patina to everything – but Jesus himself remains in sharp form, as if Magdalena’s memory is beginning to fade). There is a little bit of Catholic mysticism here as well that shows very late in the movie and almost comes out of a different movie into this one.

The performances are naturalistic. Most of the cast and crew here are women, which is something to celebrate; this is definitely a mom-centric film and any mother’s heart is going to ache for the women here as they wait interminably for word of their missing loved ones. Despite a modest budget, the technical proficiency of the movie stands out. The movie is often gripping and while it never has the emotional catharsis an American version might make of it, there is a quiet dignity that may change a few viewpoints about the Mexican people…in a perfect world. In the world we live in, however, stories like this are all too commonplace and too many Americans seem to think that those who disappear deserved what they got. That’s the truly messed-up aspect of all of this.

REASONS TO SEE: Quietly suspenseful. Very powerful in places.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit jarring.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the directing debut for Valadez.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews, Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: El Norte
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Willy’s Wonderland

The Imposter


The Imposter

An enigma in a grey hoodie.

(2012) Documentary (Indomina) Frederic Boudin, Carey Gibson, Beverly Dollarhide, Charlie Parker, Nancy Fisher, Bryan Gibson, Bruce Perry, Phillip French, Codey Gibson, Adam O’Brian, Anna Ruben, Cathy Dresbach, Alan Teichman, Maria Jesus Hoyos, Ken Appledorn. Directed by Bart Layton

 

The darkness inside our souls is often simply incomprehensible to the rest of the world. “Why on earth would they do that?” is a question we find ourselves asking more often than not. Sometimes there really isn’t an answer to that question.

In 1994, 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace on his way home from playing basketball in the park. At first, the police in San Antonio (where he and his family lived) were not too excited – after all, Nicholas often ran away and had in fact had a row with his mom that morning. But he always came home the next day.

That didn’t happen this time and hours stretched into days into weeks into months and then into years. The cops had made an attempt to find him but after awhile gave up the search until only his mother Beverly Dollarhide and sister Carey Gibson and her husband Bryan were the only people really looking for him and even they were beginning to lose hope that they’d find him alive.

Then three years and four months after his disappearance the family gets an incredible call. Nicholas had been found in Linares, Spain. He’d been through an incredible ordeal of torture, sexual abuse and brain washing, suffering extreme punishment for speaking in his native English to the point that he now spoke with a French accent. His blue eyes had been dyed brown with acid. So traumatized is the young boy that he can scarcely remember any of his life before the kidnapping, which he attributed to rogue elements in the military.

He is welcomed home with open arms nonetheless. His sister flies to Spain to fetch him and upon hugging him, she recognizes his nose and other features. Gone is the outgoing, almost cocky young boy and in his place is a paranoid, terrified young man who while seeming nice enough is still showing signs of an enormous trauma. After an interview with the FBI, agent Nancy Fisher is determined to locate the people responsible for his ordeal and bring them to justice.

But not everyone is convinced. Private detective Charlie Fisher, hired by the television tabloid “Hard Copy” to gain an interview with the boy, becomes suspicious and compares the ears of this young man with the ears from a picture of Nicholas Barclay just before he was kidnapped. They don’t match. Also forensic psychologist Bruce Perry after examining Nicholas realizes that this isn’t the same boy.

In fact, he’s not even a boy – he’s 23 years old and he’s not American, he’s a Frenchman of Algerian descent. His name is Frederic Boudin and he is wanted by Interpol for impersonating younger teenagers in exchange for lodging and board in youth homes all over Europe. He has dreamed of being accepted into a loving family and living in America all his life and he soon realized that Nicholas Barclay was his ticket to his dreams. Which leads to several questions; why did the family accept someone who was so obviously not their son as Nicholas? Why would Boudin do something so heinous and foolish – he had to know he would be found out eventually, right? And if this wasn’t Nicholas, what happened to him?

All good questions and there aren’t any easy answers for any of them. Layton uses interviews (primarily with Boudin and Carey Gibson) to look into what happened. He also uses actors to re-create certain scenes that are crucial to the story. The results are taut and prone to causing shivers in even the strongest of viewers.

Boudin is a charming sort who is utterly amoral and borderline psychotic. He lies as easily as he smiles and trust me, he smiles a lot so much of what he says must be taken with a grain of salt. He only shows real emotion when talking about his upbringing with a grandfather who, disgusted with his black Algerian father, abuses the boy whom he thinks is unworthy of his name.

This is one of those movies that doesn’t end with all the answers right in front of you. If anything, you wind up with more questions than when you started. I kind of regret that the filmmakers entitled the film  the way they did – I think that Boudin’s deception might have had more impact if it was held back longer in the film. However, I understand why they did it – the movie, after all, isn’t strictly about Boudin and his caper but about Dollarhide and her family as well – and about young Nicholas Barclay. Who the imposter truly is in this film is left up to the audience to decide – and a tough decision it is, too.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy and sometimes downright scary. Boudin is compelling.

REASONS TO STAY: Can make audiences awfully uncomfortable.  Sometimes a little too slick.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a lot of f-bombs among other bad words. There is implied child abuse, sexual abuse and violence. The theme is definitely adult.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Layton has written and directed several documentary features for television. This is his first feature to be released theatrically.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100. The reviews are very, very good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Changeling

AMATEUR PSYCHOLOGY LOVERS: There is so much going on here you’ll spend hours discussing the psychology of the various participants with other audience members.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: White Irish Drinkers