There are few more highly politicised borderlands in the world than the US-Mexico frontier. It is the most frequently crossed border in the world: yearly, there are approximately 350 million people who make the journey from all over Central and South America to attempt to cross in search of a better life. Very few make it to the other side without compromise. Writer-director Fernanda Valadez plunges the audience headfirst into the tumultuous experience of border-crossing and surfaces with a remarkable and poignant tale of loss without redemption.
The film opens on a dark figure crossing a barren terrain. Jesùs (Juan Jesús Varela), barely 13 years old, announces that he will go to Arizona with his friend. This is the last time his mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) sees him before the two boys are reported missing. This indefatigable mother treks to the border where there are dozens of bodies stored, but she can’t find her son among the dead. She continues into Badlands where the gangs ravage and pillage without mercy to find out more. Here, she joins forces Miguel (David Illescas), a young man who was recently deported from the US and who is also looking for his lost family.
Identifying Features is an emotional pilgrimage that begins in the chilling reality of death at the border and ends in a fantastical allegory for the tragic cycle of violence. The bewildering ending depicts a devastating subversion of innocence that is worse than death. In the first act, Magdalena tries to find her son in the morgue. The non-plussed, matter-of-fact demeanour of the bureaucrats painfully underlines how normalised the violence and suffering are.
The locations are sparse border towns and desolate landscapes and the cinematography deftly frames the lost characters, dwarfed by their surroundings. The use of atmospheric sound and off-camera noise beautifully enhance the protagonist’s bewilderment. Identifying Features is a confident blend of heart-wrenching realism and poetic tragedy.
Identifying Features is released digitally on demand on 22nd January 2021.
Watch the trailer for Identifying Features here: