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Review: 'Identifying Features' is a Shattering Portrait of Immigration and a Mother's Search for Her Son

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jan 25, 2021
'Identifying Features'
'Identifying Features'  

How far would you go to look for a missing loved one? The question is asked in "Identifying Features," and makes for a haunting, devastating film. Through its exquisite cinematography and tragic narrative, it plunges the audience into the characters' perspectives.

Directed by Fernanda Valadez in her directorial debut, and written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero, this Mexican/Spanish film follows Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) as she desperately searches for her son, who goes missing after leaving home to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. On her journey, Magdalena meets another mother whose son went missing, and a man deported from the U.S. We witness a mother's tenacity, refusing to give up until she finds her son. Mercedes Hernández is outstanding; she bears the weight of the world on her shoulders, holding continuous tension between perseverance and devastation.

Director/writer Valadez is from Mexico, and she said in the press notes that she was struck by the violence in her hometown and country. She wanted to tell a story about families searching for missing immigrants, "journeys that might seem like a descent to hell." The film is excellently crafted. The restrained usage of score makes the film feel more realistic and intimate, yet the high-pitched strings heighten tension when utilized. The cinematography, by Claudia Becerril Bulos, is gorgeous and striking. Brimming with empathy, it repeatedly juxtaposes images of transcendent and bucolic beauty — blurred neon lights, a babbling brook, a lakeside pink-hued sunset — with tremendous pain.

Magdalena's son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), leaves with his friend, Rigo (Armando García), to cross the border by bus into the U.S to get jobs in Arizona. Within the film's first few minutes, we learn the two young men have been missing for two months. Magdalena and her friend Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra), Rigo's mother, go to the police. Because they left of their own volition with their parents' consent, the police won't investigate. Chuya says, "How come 'there's no crime to pursue'? They are missing." The women look bereft. The detective gives them a binder of photos of dead bodies that have been found. Magdalena's son isn't there, so she decides to search herself.

In the U.S., Magdalena gets her blood taken to see if her DNA matches that of dead bodies found near the border. A man shows Magdalena a slideshow of photos of found items. Evocative of an archeological dig, these are the remnants of missing and murdered people. Magdalena nods in recognition at the last photo: A duffel bag. She says, "I packed the bag myself for him." He matter-of-factly tells her that these bodies were burned, so there's no way they can get a sample. This is the closest they'll get to identifying her son. It's horrifying and nauseating.

Meanwhile, Olivia (Ana Laura Rodríguez)'s son has been missing for four years. She travels to the U.S. to identify a body that might be her son. She's brought into a tractor trailer filled with body bags. Olivia lingers at a body. As the camera remains on the body bags, she says off-screen she can't identify the body. The doctor says they ran the test twice with both her and her husband's samples. She says, "That's not my son." But she eventually acquiesces to claim the body. Throughout her scenes, Olivia scowls with withering looks, silently conveying her anger and pain.

Magdalena and Olivia cross paths. Olivia reads documents for Magdalena. Each woman briefly shares the circumstances leading them here. Olivia advises that if Magdalena signs, she's "accepting that they stop looking for him." Magdalena ponders that perhaps her son really is dead. Olivia tells her not to make the same mistake she did. It's a tragedy the system views their children as disposable.

Back in Mexico, Magdalena continues her search, carrying her son's duffel bag. At a bus station, she tries to talk to the driver of the bus her son rode. She explains to the woman maintaining bus routes that her son went missing. But the woman refuses to help. While Magdalena is in a bathroom stall, a woman — only her hand and arm visible in a mirror's reflection — warns Magdalena. She says the bus company loses buses, and sometimes buses arrive with no passengers. She tells Magdalena to ask for Regis at a migrants' shelter. Magdalena meets with Regis, who tells her to go back home, that many people go missing. Magdalena looks crestfallen. She needs to know what happened to her son. Regis eventually reveals the name and address of a man beaten after his bus was stopped, which might have been the same bus her son rode.

Meanwhile, a man named Miguel (David Illescas) is deported from the U.S. for entering illegally. In a great scene, the camera follows him, moving fluidly as he walks with other people towards a building that says "Mexico." Once outside, he pauses, gazing over a bridge at the numerous blurred dots of red lights from all the cars' taillights at the border. It's another visually beautiful scene tinged with pain.

Both Magdalena and Miguel separately make the arduous trek to Ocampo, a town where buses and trucks no longer travel due to the violence there. Magdalena is looking for answers; Miguel is returning home to his mother. They meet and Miguel offers to help Magdalena. Traveling together, they form a bond. But neither is prepared for what they will find.

Blurry images are a recurring motif. The opening scene comprises a white screen as images slowly come into focus, a blurry figure walking towards the camera. Backgrounds in frames are often blurry. Characters become blurry as they leave scenes. The blurred images mirror how Magdalena and Olivia search for their sons amidst a murky, often thwarted, path. Another recurring theme is that the people Magdalena seeks help from typically exist offscreen, which simultaneously retains the focus on her and highlights her isolation. At times, it also indicates the lack of humanity from authority figures. Both motifs tie into the larger theme of not seeing things clearly.

In a beautiful scene, Rigo's father Pedro asks Magdalena why his son left home. Pink, violet, and turquoise lights flicker, from a blurred neon sign. Magdalena says, "He wanted to find his own way." We all deserve to find our way.

From its first frame to its last, "Identifying Features" is a mesmerizing, gripping film casting a hypnotic spell. It will haunt me long after watching.

"Identifying Features" is now playing in select theaters.

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