BFI Player film review: Identifying Features
Direction: 9: 7: 89
Daniel Broadley | On 05, May 2021
Director: Fernanda Valadez
Cast: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela
Where to watch Identifying Features online in the UK: BFI Player (subscription)
When a mass grave of burned corpses are found, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) fears the worst. Her son Jesús’ (Juan Jesús Varela) bag was found nearby, along with his friend’s body (the pair had set off for the US to look for work in Arizona) but there’s no sign of him. Many of the burned bodies have what the authorities call “no identifying features”, meaning it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty who they once belonged to.
Thus begins Magdalena’s journey to find her son in the militia-ridden badlands of the US-Mexico border, which is wonderfully captured by cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos. Along the way, Magdalena meets various victims of these merciless, Wild West-like outlaw gangs, finding her way along through passed-on whispers and hushed rumours. She eventually meets Miguel (David Illescas), a boy who is deported back to Mexico from the US, and the pair unite in the search for their respective families.
Comparisons to recent Oscar winner Nomadland are evident; the landscapes are beautiful but terrifying as good people find and help each other in the face of adversity, and documentary-like camera work is juxtaposed with grand shots of sunset-stained lakes and reams of blurred car lights crossing the border. But the setting of Identifying Features is far more brutal, and Valadez’s expressionist imagery gives the film a nightmarish quality in the final third and even goes so far as to conjure images of Satan himself.
The central performances are subdued and subtle; there is no overacting here, but that doesn’t detract from the underlying and escalating anxiety, which is accentuated by some sensational original music by Clarice Jensen. Dialogue is minimal in this quietly alarming film, as emotions are suppressed for the sake of its characters’ safety. The voices of authority – from the US border force to the Mexican police – are all faceless and kept firmly off camera, as their voices remain almost indifferent to the horrific reality before them.
In the film’s opening scene, a selection of images are put before Magdalena and her friend, who recognises a picture of her son’s body. Images of lost items found near the mass grave include children’s clothing and toys, immediately portraying the mercilessness of this lawless and corrupt land – on both sides of the border.
Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez introduces herself as a striking new filmmaking talent with this accomplished feature debut: a slow-burning exploration of her country’s migrant and missing persons crises (there are currently 73,000 people “missing” in Mexico) with a genuinely breathtaking climax.
Identifying Features is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.