Identifying Features – Film Review
There are horror stories reported globally of children kidnapped by powerful cartels in Mexico and in Identifying Features such a nightmarish scenario is unveiled to devastating effect. Identifying Features highlights that plight of a determined mother to locate her son after his disappearance with a strong central performance by Mercedes Hernández as Magdalena the mother. The film shines a spotlight on the anguish encountered by the families of the disappeared in a haunting, riveting tale that will leave its audiences shell-shocked. It is paradoxically a visually beautiful, mesmerising and poetic tale as a feature directorial debut by Fernanda Valadez.
Magdalena’s son, Jesús, disappears en route to the US border which unfortunately was an all too familiar occurrence historically in parts of Mexico. Indeed, in 2019, Human Rights Watch discussed Mexico’s humanitarian crisis revealing that there were more than 37,000 missing or disappeared people in Mexico. It was a crisis that Valadez was keen to highlight within Identifying Features particularly regarding the impact on those left behind.
Under Valadez’s vision, the camera does not stray far from the emotion overspilling as Magdalena and other women crossing her path undertake DNA tests and other processes effectively to ‘identify’ the bodies of potential victims. It is especially sombre to watch however Valadez’s direction is subtle with the camera lingering on Magdalena’s heart breaking, emotive scenes on her quest to discover her son’s whereabouts.
Identifying Features sensitively depicts the unimaginable despair experienced by Magdalena amidst that unwavering determination to embark on an investigation for the truth. What is astonishing to watch is that strength of character pervading Magdalena’s persona as she undertakes this road trip
through dangerous territory alone. It is this single-minded focus which remains compelling. Identifying Features illustrates the unwillingness of the state to assist, to the detriment of mothers like Magdalena, perhaps due to lack of funding or the unquestioning fear of the cartels. Hernández’s portrayal of Magdalena conveys a steely, silent confidence, with minimal exposition, despite the adversity faced, which draws the audience further into her inner turmoil. It is certainly an impressive, empathetic performance and with close ups on Hernández, this is very much her film.
The emotional depth of Identifying Features is emphasised further by the level of silence permeating throughout and equally the naturalistic settings. As such, there is a degree of beauty interwoven, despite the atrocities of the situation, which works as any violence mainly occurs off-screen. The focus remains on Hernández’s Magdalena and her journey throughout some beautiful panoramas and fortunately Valadez made the decision for the camera to linger in such scenes accentuating the aesthetically pleasing cinematography. Such decision ensures that the audience will remain captivated whilst following Magdalena on this journey through Mexico. Equally with such stunning visuals and skilful direction it is no surprise that Identifying Features was the winner of the Audience Award as well as the Best Screenplay at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
As Identifying Features focuses on that depth of a mother’s love, it remains convincing that Magdalena would persevere on the road trip, through dangerous terrains, in her desperation to seek resolution about her son’s disappearance. It is slow paced, but reflective which provides that opportunity for the film to breathe and enables the full emotional impact of Magdalena’s desperation to resonate and be understood. Valadez’s use of muted background colours accentuates that tension further creating an eerie sensation which seems designed deliberately to unsettle.
Valadez re-creates this sense of horror throughout Identifying Features with its sombre imagery and the underlying sensation of the uncertainty embedded within the real-life horror of disappeared victims. The dynamic is terrifying enough to ensure that parents will never wish to let their children out of their sight again given the ensuing drama encountered by Magdalena. Whilst the plot may not contain many dramatic aspects, those simmering unsettling background elements convey a continuous sense of dread in Identifying Features to satisfy most audiences. Such choice of tone by Valadez ensures that Magdalena’s journey is a compelling, thought provoking watch with a gut punching denouement and that recognition of the ultimate sacrifice.
Identifying Features is a sombre, poignant and chilling tale which places that focus on a mother’s love and the horrific plight of families continuing to search for the disappeared in a race against time. The film portrays the matriarch in a positive light with that drive and determination to seek the truth at any cost which is ultimately heart wrenching. The horror and heartbreak endured throughout Identifying Features illustrate Valadez’s skilful, artistic direction to convey these fictional but powerful accounts of real-life events in a way that will unsettle and linger with audiences.
Identifying Features certainly identifies Valadez as a director to keep on the radar in the future.