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▶︎ Identifying Features is available to watch on BFI Player.

“What did he gain by leaving?” Two months have passed since Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) left his small town in central Mexico on foot with his friend Rodrigo to search for work across the US border. Having heard no word from the teenager since, his mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) sets out on a journey to find her son and uncover the truth. 

As of November 2020, the Mexican government reported over 75,000 missing citizens. Thousands more so reported every year are eventually found, not always alive. Migrants crossing the country towards the US border often fall prey to criminal cartels while others are kidnapped from their homes and extorted for money or brutally assaulted and left for dead. With morgues piling up with unidentified bodies and little support from government authorities, families are often left to investigate on their own or perform the grim task of digging the ground to searching for remains. In Identifying Features, Fernanda Valadez examines the devastation wrought upon those surviving relatives through the eyes of a desperate mother, highlighting the psychological impact of living not knowing the fate of your loved one and with no body to mourn.

Juan Jesús Varela as Jesús in Identifying Features

Co-written by Valadez with Astrid Rondero, the film (expanding upon Valadez’s 2014 short 400 Maletas) sidesteps the gritty-realist style oft associated with depictions of the region, shape-shifting with confidence from intimate character study to otherworldly thriller. The ongoing violence acquires mythical proportions in the minds of locals who speak of ‘el diablo’ but, as Valadez illustrates, if the dark forces are more earthly they are no less horrific or surreal. As Magdalena discovers, evil can exist in the most banal places and is just as likely found in the apathetic attitude of a government official as the eyes of an armed gunman on a dark highway.

Hernández shines in her nuanced portrayal of Magdalena, her emotional turmoil and potent determination evident in her mournful eyes and furrowed brow. The camera focuses on her face in interactions with supporting characters who often exist as disembodied voices offscreen. Barely literate and carrying not as much as a cellphone, she’s propelled forward in her search by love and tenacity.

In a poignant scene, Magdalena and Rodrigo’s mother Chuya report their sons missing at the local police station only to be told that having left with parental consent, the boys are not considered missing and therefore there is ‘no crime to pursue’. Chuya is soon faced the tragic fate of her son when she is unceremoniously handed a file of police photos for identification – but with no remains found, Magdalena’s journey has just begun.

After visiting the bus depot where Jesús was last seen, she is warned by a sympathetic stranger not to openly enquire about her son for fear of someone overhearing. Buses that leave for the US border regularly arrive at their destination without their passengers and only bags inside and – in an allusion to corrupt authorities – evidence is often concealed.

Mercedes Hernández as Magdalena in Identifying Features

In a poetic twist of fate, the desperate mother soon crosses paths with Miguel (David Illescas), a young deportee from the US returning home. Miguel takes Magdalena to his home hoping to offer her a warm place to rest on her journey, only to find his village abandoned and his own mother long gone. In this stranger Magdalena sees a distraught son filled with regret, and as she searches for her own the two forge a bond in their shared despair.

Cinematographer Claudia Beccerril Bulos uses a wide aspect ratio and static shots to highlight Magdalena’s lonely journey and capture the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, belying the threat of violence bubbling below. Faces and bodies are centred in the frame while distressing moments are visually distorted, further heightening the almost supernatural feel, while the colour palette evolves from murky greens and sickly yellows to fiery hues that echo Magdalena’s later open-mouthed horror. Omar Juárez’s immersive sound design deftly evokes the natural environment while Clarice Jensen’s dynamic score is sparingly employed for the film’s most startling moments. Dialogue is kept minimal and, in an audacious move, one of the film’s expositional monologues is presented untranslated from a local dialect, leaving (most) viewers to decipher the images onscreen.

“We all look the same from behind,” Miguel tells Magdalena when she notes his resemblance to her lost son. Every unclaimed bag, worn-out boot or crumpled jacket separated from a warm body on the road north symbolises a life cherished and somewhere is a relative who refuses to give up hope. With its bold visual style and compassionate gaze, Identifying Features is a burning indictment of an ever-growing humanitarian crisis and announces Valadez as an exciting new voice.

Further reading

Desert of the disappeared: Patricio Guzmán on Nostalgia for the Light

Desert of the disappeared: Patricio Guzmán on Nostalgia for the Light

Fire at Sea review: Gianfranco Rosi measures the migration crisis

By Trevor Johnston

Fire at Sea review: Gianfranco Rosi measures the migration crisis

Atlantics review: a mysterious fable of class, migration and heartbreak

By Catherine Wheatley

Atlantics review: a mysterious fable of class, migration and heartbreak

Documentaries without borders at Mexico’s roving Ambulante 2019

By Sophie Brown

Documentaries without borders at Mexico’s roving Ambulante 2019

Sight & Sound Summer 2021

In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.

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