There is no shortage of disturbing images in “Identifying Features,” Fernanda Valadez’s poetic tale of family, violence, and migration. We see an eyeball being operated upon and the bodies of livestock being burned. These are gruesome sights, but the film refuses to cut away. Whether it’s these moments or the excavation of its characters’ personal and social pain, the award-winning film forces the audience to confront harsh truths. It won’t let us look away.
“Identifying Features” follows Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), a middle-aged Mexican woman determined to track down her son. She hasn’t heard from him since he decided to migrate to the U.S. two months ago, and the authorities believe he is dead. But Magdalena has to know for sure.
A young man recently deported from the States, an elderly gentleman haunted by brutality he’s witnessed, a doctor searching for her own son, and several civilians afraid to speak openly are among those Magdalena encounters on her journey to the truth. Detail by detail, hint by hint, she finds out what happened after Jesús departed for his new life.
“For more than 10 years now we’ve been experiencing a crisis of violence in Mexico. It’s a very complex phenomenon that involves drug trafficking, human trafficking, oil trafficking, migration, corruption, disparity, and social injustice, among other factors,” Valadez told us. “Besides that, I come from a region in Mexico that expels many of its young people: they leave for the U.S. looking for a better future.” She explained, “I think [‘Identifying Features’] is my attempt to understand and process all of the violence that we have been experiencing through a story that feels familiar: the love we can share for each other.”
With its unhurried pace and bare-bones plot, “Identifying Features” is a self-assured piece of filmmaking, one that’s more concerned with mood than action. Like Magdalena herself, it knows what it is and what it wants. The protagonist is desperate for her son; the film is adamant that the viewer takes in and understands horrors that happen every day, yet are routinely ignored.
“Identifying Features” was recently named Best International Feature at the Gotham Awards. It also picked up prizes at Sundance and Zurich Film Festival last year. Valadez penned the script with Astrid Rondero.
“Identifying Features” is now in virtual cinemas.