Identifying Features (2020)
Director: Fernanda Valadez
Writers: Astrid Roundero & Fernanda Valdez
When two boys head out alone into the world, leaving their mothers behind, you know you’re in the realm of fairy tales. What makes Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s new drama so powerful is that she marries the stark emotions and visual imagery of myth with the harsh reality of illegal border crossings between Mexico and the United States. The story centers on Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), who searches for her teenage son, Jesús, who has gone missing after leaving his rural Mexican hometown with a friend to find work in the U.S. Within the film’s first five minutes, we learn a crucial piece of information that sets Magdalena on her journey. Normally I would feel fine about spoiling that plot development, but the opening scenes of Identifying Features were so immediately compelling that I don’t want to dilute their power.
The title refers to the practice of identifying a body after death, or, if a body is not found, in identifying the possessions of a lost person. Although evidence quickly points to the likely death of Jesús, Magdelena refuses to concede, not only because she fears the worst, but because if she makes this legal concession, the government will stop searching for her son and she’ll never find out what really happened. She resolves to investigate her son’s probable death on her own terms. What begins as a visit to federal authorities turns into a quest, one that takes her far afield to places where a woman shouldn’t travel alone. But she doesn’t let her fear stop her. Valadez shows us Magdalena’s vulnerability, but also her determination. When Magdalena questions government officials and others who might know about her son’s whereabouts, the camera rarely shows us the faces of the people Magdalena is interviewing. Instead, the camera stays on Magdalena, and we watch for her response to information that is unhelpful and often obfuscating. Hernandez’s performance is riveting throughout; she shows us that Magdalena doesn’t seen this quest as a choice. She has to know the truth.
For most of the film we follow Magdalena, though we are briefly in the point of view of two characters who aid her in her search. Through these side characters, we see that there are many stories of border crossings and that Magdalena’s particular journey is part of a collective story of immigration between the United States and Mexico. In one arresting scene, we see the masses of people returning to Mexico after being deported from the U.S. Other encounters show the strange mix of lawlessness and bureaucracy that characterize travel between the U.S. and Mexico. The most haunting scenes take place in the empty desert town where Magdalena ends up in a last-ditch effort to find her son. The imagery becomes elemental: fire, water, land. There’s one particular scene that crosses over into magic realism, and it’s especially striking because the rest of the movie is told so naturalistically, and with such attention to quotidian detail, from the white government-issues binders that contain photos of the recently dead, to the small, crappy television in the migrant shelter where Magdalena rests for the night. It’s the magical scene that ends up foretelling the fate of Jesús, and when Magdalena finds out the devastating truth, the image comes back to haunt her — and the viewer.