All we know of Jesús is his face. It’s his face that opens “Identifying Features,” the debut film from director Fernanda Valadez, at first blurry and far away, but walking ever closer to us. The image fades, as a voiceover informs us that Jesús left his Mexican town with a friend weeks ago, in search of work across the U.S. border. This quick and simple setup tells us everything we need to know as his mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), sets out on a quest to find out what happened to her son.
There are parallel migrant stories told in “Identifying Features,” equally filled with horror and sorrow. The first of course is that of Magdalena and Jesús. Magdalena grows even more worried after Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra), the mother of the friend Jesús was traveling with, finds out that her son is dead. Magdalena leaves in search of answers, but no one is really able to provide her with any definitive answers; Jesús, like so many others who have tried to cross the border, has simply vanished.
The second story involves the flipside of the situation. Miguel (David Illescas) is a young Mexican man who did cross the border, but is now being deported, and is heading back to his mother and his family home. He and Magdalena cross paths on their respective journeys, and the setup of their relationship—a mother missing her son, a son missing his mother—feels like it could easily have become conventional. But Valadez sidesteps convention with a shocking climax that contains a dose of mysticism that almost doesn’t feel real, but still works.
Magdalena and Miguel are able to relate to each other and commiserate together over their shared trauma. Dialogue is used sparingly throughout the film, but Hernández and Illescas still create rich characters with their performances regardless. Hernández is largely quiet and stoic, but the pain of her situation rarely leaves her face. Illescas is more forthcoming with his emotions. At one point, he tells Magdalena that he would never have returned to his home had he not been forced too; there’s bitterness in his words as he speaks of his situation. Miguel, Magdalena, Jesús, and so many others are caught in a sort of purgatory, unable to find peace in a home that is riddled with violence and poverty, but also unable to safely find a home and work in the United States.
In some regards, “Identifying Features” works as a mystery, but Valadez furthers her story with mostly quiet moments. When Chuya visits the authorities to try and learn more about what happened to her son, all she is given is a binder filled with photos to flip through. They are photos of belongings that have been found, and each one has a story. Magdalena’s experience feels like it’s filled with a lot more waiting, as she is asked to look in a room filled with body bags to identify someone who might be her son, and then prompted to sign papers she doesn’t really understand that would confirm that she accepts the body. She meets another mother there, Olivia (Ana Laura Rodríguez), who has been searching for her son for years. Valadez dwells on Olivia’s story a bit longer than necessary, especially since she never comes up again after these scenes, but she does provide us with yet another perspective on this humanitarian crisis. Magdalena could find Jesús safe and sound, or she could at least find closure knowing what happened to him. Or she could end up like Olivia, and just never know.
Similar quiet but impactful sequences are used to introduce us to Miguel, as we see him navigating the seemingly endless hallways and tunnels at the border, then hitch a ride however possible to get him home. Valadez and cinematographer Clauda Becerril compose every scene beautifully. Interior scenes are often cramped and confined and shot in close-up, the claustrophobia enhancing the horror of their situations; exterior scenes utilize more wide shots that illustrate just how lost the characters are.
It’s seems so easy for so many people, in the U.S. in particular, to let their white supremacist, “America first” attitudes blind them to the plight of the people of Mexico. Valadez said that she and others first began noticing these issues in her country in 2012, as so many people were displaced or disappeared, and migrants and activists alike were killed as mass graves took their place. “Identifying Features” puts a face to the issue, one that unlike a lot of border stories doesn’t primarily focus on crime or gangs or drugs. It’s unrelenting but compassionate and incredibly human, and it’s apparent by the film’s sobering conclusion that the plight of Magdalena and Miguel merely represent the plight of many.
“Identifying Features” is currently available to watch in Kino Lorber’s virtual cinema. Runtime: 95 minutes. Not rated.