A haunting and beautifully realized film, Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares) is a meticulously constructed work that teeters on the edge of magical realism.
It tells a story of one mother's journey to find her son who has disappeared while attempting to cross the border from Guanajuato, Mexico into the United States.
Magdalena Loredo Martinez, played with resolute grace by Mercedes Hernández, must navigate a hostile and tedious world to find her son, even as no one else cares about what happened to him. It seems hopeless and likely futile for Magdalena as she retraces her son's steps from bus stations to shelters, but she remains dogged in her determination.
On her journey, she encounters strangers who show simple kindnesses. The most notable is Miguel, played with delicate tragedy by David Illescas. The two bond as he tries to make his way home to his mother after being deported. The parallels between Miguel and Magdalena's son are apparent.
It would be a disservice not to give high praises to the film's director and co-writer, Fernanda Valadez. If I hadn't known it beforehand, I would have assumed the film was Valadez's fifth or sixth feature because of its confidence. It's a remarkable debut feature that marks her vision as one to watch.
That vision takes the form of poetic and straightforward visuals. One sequence, where characters travel down a reflective water surface, is breathtaking. Valadez's lens captures the near fairytale-esque beauties of its landscapes mixed with the real-life horrors found within them.
I should note that the film's focus is not on the larger crisis of US immigration policies. The film centers on its characters; there's no explicit message about the dangers of a militarized border. Instead, Magdalena and Miguel's honest portrayals are left to speak for themselves, and they speak volumes.
There are some moments where Magdalena lingers as the only face on the screen, with no typical shot/reverse-shot conversation. It gives the entire film over to her, letting her command the screen. Her journey is the center of the film. It's a refreshing alternative to films that provide an outsider's look at those impacted by border policies. (I'm looking at you, Sicario: Day of the Soldado.)
The conclusion here is still nightmarish, mixing in fantastical elements, which may or may not be real, of near horror that cross over into our real world. With a droning score and lit only with fire that is seemingly going backward, it's a brutal yet controlled conclusion. Magdalena's journey is never one that feels like it will end well, though the ending Valadez provides is a deeper twist of the knife than expected.
You can stream Identifying Features via the Virtual Grand Illusion Cinema starting Friday, January 22.