FILM REVIEW: Identifying Features – The BFI London Film Festival 2020

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Astrid Rondero and Fernanda Valadez

Director: Fernanda Valadez

Unremittingly depressing is Identifying Features, an atmospheric offering from Mexico about a woman in search of her son. With her consent, Jesus went off to cross the border into America and start a new life in Arizona. When, after four weeks, Jesus fails to get in touch she believes that he never made it to the border at all. She packs a small holdall and retraces his journey towards America.

Fernanda Valadez’s film is bleak from the start as another mother is shown pictures of her dead son, shot presumably by the bandits that patrol the Mexican side of the border. As no similar photograph is presented to Magdalena she can only hope that Jesus is alive, but when she reaches the border she’s faced with bureaucracy and fear. The bandits are so powerful that people – bus-drivers and hostel workers, people who may have seen Jesus – are afraid to offer Magdalena information.

Only Miguel, a young Mexican man travelling in the other direction, away from the US, is willing to help her. He sees his mother in her, and she her son. When Magdalena says that Miguel looks likes Jesus from behind, he, in what must be the only chink of light in the whole film, retorts jokingly ‘we all look alike from behind.’

As Magdalena, Mercedes Hernández is very good, never giving too much away, even when she is being most dogged in her pursuit. She doesn’t cry or scream; instead her frame and her eyes seem to hold all the emotion. She never appears scared, but she’s determined to discover the truth, whether it’s good or bad. The worst thing – her child has gone missing – has happened, so what is there to be scared of?

Valadez and Astrid Rondero’s screenplay begins like a Kafkian road movie as Magdalena meets various people in her journey, but it works better as a two-hander between her and Miguel. He’s played by David Illescas, whose face can’t quite the disguise the excitement about going home, and so it’s heart-breaking to see all the expectation drain from his face as he approaches his mother’s house.

There is little shouting, and the sound design is minimal. For the first twenty minutes or so, scenes are dominated by a single sound; a crackling fire as Jesus says goodbye, a ticking clock as another woman prepares to find her son, the sloppy, glossy noise of pages of a photograph album as they are turned over and the gloop of a needle in a gelatinous eye. It comes as a surprise to hear Clarice Jensen’s original music emanate, first as an electronic track as Miguel passes through the border gates, and then sounds softer and less intrusive.

One stranger tells Magdalena that the Devil is responsible for her son’s disappearance and even though we see the shadow of a pair of horns and a flick of a forked tail, nothing quite prepares her – or the viewer – for his appearance. However, despite this Devil’s outline this is Identifying Features’ single concession to magic realism that is otherwise a fiercely naturalistic film. With the US/Mexican wall so much in contention, it’s sobering to discover that many migrants don’t ever make it safely to the border.

It may be pessimistic, but Identifying Features is still a compelling watch, down, in particular, to Hernández’s understated performance. A mother’s love is everything, but this film may show that a mother’s love also has its limits.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October

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