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“Identifying Features” poetically confronts migrant horrors in modern-day Mexico

The poignant feature-length debut from Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez concludes this season’s Spotlight Cinema series on December 1.

The poignant feature-length debut from Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez concludes this season’s Spotlight Cinema series on December 1.

Header Image: Against the backdrop of a stark, sun-drenched rural landscape, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) pauses momentarily on her perilous journey across Mexico to locate her missing adolescent son.

As of November 2020, the Mexican government has reported over 75,000 missing citizens. Director Fernanda Valadez addresses this devastating humanitarian crisis with Identifying Features (2020), a lyrical, unflinching, and visually inventive look at the contradictions and unspeakable horrors that migrants face in modern-day Mexico, while blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. Presented in conjunction with the current Caja de visiones (Box of Visions) exhibit at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Spotlight Cinema will offer the only Madison area theatrical screening of the film on Wednesday, December 1, at 7 p.m.

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Marking Valadez’s assured feature debut, this powerful, slow-burning social-realist thriller tells the story of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), an illiterate middle-aged woman who embarks on a perilous journey to locate her adolescent son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), months after he left with a friend from their city of San Felipe in the state of Guanajuato to cross the border into the United States. Determined to discover the truth of what happened to him, Magdalena soon finds herself in over her head and entangled in a bewildering, labyrinthine nightmare of faceless bureaucratic obstacles, organized crime, and deep institutional corruption.

From the beginning, Identifying Features creates a deceptively ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere that counterbalances the film’s bleak subject matter. Valadez opens with a hazy shot of Jesús slowly coming into focus as he approaches the window of a dilapidated house and informs his mother of his intention to leave for Arizona in search of work. This turns out to be Magdalena’s last enduring memory of her missing child. With an economy of language, a minimalist aesthetic, and a poetic visual flair, Valadez’s film proceeds to follow Magdalena on her odyssey across Mexico. Along the way, she encounters a young man named Miguel (David Illescas), who was deported from the U.S. and returns to find his homeland changed. The two then begin to accompany one another on their travels.

As they traverse a desolate, depopulated, apocalyptic landscape beset by violence, chaos, and loss, Identifying Features immerses the viewer in a quietly mesmerizing sensory experience that maintains a delicate balance between beauty and terror. Valadez, who co-wrote the script with her close creative collaborator Astrid Rondero, deliberately withholds information and eschews expository dialogue while emphasizing the visual elements of the film. Key details and cryptic clues are gradually revealed, thus heightening the cumulative sense of dread and despair. The elliptical narrative and unhurried, contemplative pacing may be frustrating for some viewers, but this approach parallels the unimaginably painful journey of those who wait hopefully for news of their absent loved ones and attempt to unravel their fates, only to return empty-handed.

Identifying Features piles up the suspense and dramatic tension until its heart-wrenching climax. Valadez tells her tale primarily through a series of gorgeously stark yet haunting images that capture fleeting impressions of mood. In a film of such few words, the elegant camerawork by cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos plays a particularly important role. Her striking widescreen compositions punctuate Magdalena and Miguel’s descent into hell, while oftentimes bordering on pure abstraction. The film also incorporates rich symbolism and magical realist flourishes, most impressively during a crucial flashback sequence narrated without subtitles in an unspecified native language by an elderly half-blind man living in a remote rural community. 

The nuanced, completely believable central performance by Hernández gives a human face to an ongoing national tragedy that has grown to epidemic proportions. Identifying Features urgently calls attention to the abject failure of Mexico’s war against drug cartels, the staggering number of migrants who vanish en route to the U.S. every year, and the dangerous trek of those searching for missing family members. As Valadez meticulously evokes the endless whirlwind of violence that has swept through her country, she never uses images for shock value or crosses the line between art and exploitation. Her bold, expressionistic style and compassionate gaze translate a real-life catastrophe into pure cinematic poetry, while permitting viewers to see the situation in Mexico through the eyes of those who are living it. Yet, as Valadez notes in the film’s press kit: “It is also a story of resistance, of our capacity to give meaning to a fractured existence, even if the meaning is endurance itself.”

Ultimately, the film becomes a poignant meditation on the banality of evil, the cyclical nature of violence, and the porous borders that separate victims and perpetrators. A work of harsh beauty, Identifying Features presents a complex, multilayered, and sensitive take on a difficult issue, while heralding an intrepid new voice in Mexican cinema.


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