Review: Identifying Features

Year: 2021
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director:  Fernanda Valadez
Writers: Fernanda Valadez, Astrid Rondero
Actors:  Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Varela, Laura Elena Ibarra, Manuel Campos

By Joan Amenn

Thousands of people have disappeared in Mexico due to drug cartels warring with each other and with the Mexican government. This is the context as to why so many try to cross the border into the United States. The currently exiting federal administration focused on demonizing these immigrants and detaining them in hellish conditions, sometimes deporting them back to the horrors they fled from. “Identifying Features” (2021) is a story of grief, love and resilience as one poor woman attempts to learn the fate of her son who left home for the US.

Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) is determined to find out anything she can about her son, Jesus (Juan Jesus Varela) because she cannot bear living with the uncertainty. But answers are not easily obtained in a country where anonymous body bags are routinely buried in mass graves. Sometimes just identifying the personal affects of a missing person is the only closure their loved ones will ever have. Magdalena’s journey for truth is a harsh test of her resolve and endurance but she seems to grow more determined as she faces each set back. Along the way, she receives some help but mostly it is just her solitary quest against a background of amazing natural beauty and revolting human cruelty.

[“Identifying Features”] is a quiet study of the bonds of love between a mother and her child in a time of strife and malice.”

“Identifying Features” is a little slow in pacing at first but soon engrosses the audience in the perpetual sorrow of the Mexican people who endure continual struggles to survive. It seems as if no one is safe from the threat of brutality and possible separation from their loved ones. Even an innocuous bus ride can be a cause of death from hijackers on the road. Magdalena seems a little insistently questioning authorities who either don’t want to answer or have no answers to give.

Sundance recognized “Identifying Features” with the Audience Award and the World Cinema-Dramatic Award and it is easy to see how its harrowing subject matter made it a compelling choice for the judges. Despite moments of surrealism that could have made it more flashy, it is a quiet study of the bonds of love between a mother and her child in a time of strife and malice. Not an easy watch, it is touching and memorable for the dignity it gives its main character as she refuses to give up on her son.

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