The oppressive threat of cartel violence imbeds itself into the DNA of Identifying Features, becoming inseparable from the sobering story of a distraught mother who travels to the Mexican/American border hoping to find her missing son. Every carefully composed frame illuminates this duality, and the ghostly absences produced by a nationalized trauma that keeps spreading like a virus.
Director Fernanda Valadez is careful to keep most references to the narco lifestyle and drug trade off-screen, focusing instead on the weathered face of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) and all that she comes to represent about life in modern Mexico.
Harkening from a rural area in Guanajuato, her quixotic journey north (and then south again) is a portrait of prolonged uncertainty complicated by mechanisms of bureaucracy and corruption. As a single parent, she’s now doubly alone.
Still, she meets a cast of characters along the way who aide in her pursuit, providing clues to her son’s whereabouts after he disappeared with a friend on his way to the United States.
Some of these people share a similar story, like the doctor who has been asked to identify the remains of her son who’s been missing for four years. It seems that education and background are not contributing factors to whether one will avoid experiencing terror. Others remain faceless, merely voices left just out of frame in order to emphasize the impact their words have on Magdalena’s psyche.
Since Mexico is such a vast country, modes of transportation are essential to telling this particular story. Buses, cars, boats, planes, and foot traffic all feature prominently in propelling the narrative forward, backward, and sometimes upside down. The film’s singular examination of narrative directionality reveals how a shoestring investigation can essentially take the shape of a snake eating its tail.
But even more impressively, Identifying Features manages to present the invasion of Narco influence on everyday existence in dystopian terms. The horizons are mostly devoid of people. Houses lay abandoned. Entire families have disappeared.
Any sense of joy, normalcy, and community have been seemingly erased from existence. There’s still beauty in the landscapes, and in the way some people are able to help each other. So often though, these gestures of kindness are juxtaposed with random acts of violence.
Identifying Features tips too far into the subjective horrors during its hallucinatory flashback climax, and in the process loses some of its subtle power. Still, Valadez’s impressive debut remains one of the few Mexican films to examine the impact of cartel violence without delving into the very cinematic aesthetics that so often glamorize their fascist fear-mongering techniques and iconography. And for that, it’s a must-see.
Identifying Features is now available to stream through these virtual cinemas.