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Marking Valadez’s feature-length debut, Identifying Features contains sequences that display a surprisingly deep-rooted passion for/knowledge of cinema. A highly effective tracking shot follows Miguel as he crosses into Mexico from the U.S., the never-ending traffic of cars blurring behind him. A tense sequence depicts a truck full of terrified migrants being inspected by a masked, armed man. Two mothers are forced to look through a horrific album of dead bodies to see if they can identify their sons. A goat’s head burns in crimson flames, its skull swarming with slithering maggots.

“…paints a vivid, sun-scorched portrait of a country in crisis.”

Hernández is splendid, speaking volumes in an introverted, almost-silent performance. We’re with Magdalena every step of the way, experiencing her tragedies: losing a child, confronting her peers’ loss and facing government bureaucracy (“If you sign that document,” Magdalena’s friend tells her at one point, “they’ll stop looking for [your son].”). Magdalena personifies every grieving Mexican mother, in search of hope in an increasingly hopeless world. Wise beyond his age, Illescas captivates as Miguel, in a similarly minimalist feat of acting.

Heavy silences – of which there are many – fill Identifying Features with dread, allowing your mind to wander, to try to make sense of the horror and pointlessness of it all. Apart from the two leads, there’s little warmth or humanity to be found here, the film purposefully cold and distancing, much easier to admire than to love. That said, there’s plenty to admire in this sad, contemplative journey into the heart of darkness.

Identifying Features screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Identifying Features (2020)

Directed: Fernanda Valadez

Written: Astrid Rondero, Fernanda Valadez

Starring: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, etc.

Movie score: 8/10

Identifying Features Image

"…A goat’s head burns in crimson flames, its skull swarming with slithering maggots."

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