What makes a missing person truly gone? What makes a body truly dead?
Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features takes a look at Mexico’s disappeared through a mother’s eyes. In Mexico, as of 2020, there are over 73,000 people that have disappeared since 2006. That’s an average of fourteen people per day. Some of the first scenes of this film show the magnitude of this loss — and the nonchalance that officials have towards it. It is a film about sons, mothers and the bonds that burn and become forged in flames.
Based on the 2014 short, 400 Bags, Identifying Features is a film that is powerful in its quiet moments. It follows Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), a Mexican mother, who is looking for her missing son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), whose bus disappears on its way to the US border. Desperate to find him, Magdalena decides to take matters into her own hands. She travels to the border to find the truth of what happened, but what she discovers instead is not what she expected. The film forces the viewer to stay and linger in the real time through long shots, in the slowness of each second ticking — in every moment that Magdalena does not know where her son is. In the stillness of the frame, Magdalena’s face is tired, worried, empty, and anxious. Mercedes Hernández anchors her performance in the resilience of Magdalena’s character and carries the soul of the film with it.
At the US Mexico border, Magdalena meets resistance from locals who tell her looking for her son is too dangerous. Frustrated, her luck later changes when she meets Miguel (David Illescas), a recently deported young man who is looking for his family. Together the pair look for their missing relatives and develop a mother-son bond in the process. Through their relationship we are given glimpses of the type of mother Magdalena was and wanted to be to her own son.
Throughout the film, nature is on display with images of the sky, plants, and landscapes providing an interesting emphasis on the narrative itself. The solemn desert backdrop is desolate but feels heavy with the personal journey of both main characters. Saturated in symbolism, Identifying Features comes to a haunting climax when Magdalena learns of the events that happened on the fateful night Jesús disappeared. Through the eyes of the sole survivor we see fiery images, a bloody massacre and the blurry shadow of a devil figure. The audience begins to piece together the puzzle at the same time she does and are equally as horrified to see the whole picture completed.
Bleak, profound, and sobering, Identifying Features is a masterclass in atmospheric slow burn and the horrors that mothers like Magdalena have to confront. It’s a film that stays in the viewer’s minds and pulls at their hearts long after the final credits.
Identifying Features is available to stream in virtual cinemas and theaters today.