A mother travels through the darkest parts of Mexico in a search for her missing son in Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares)
Magdalenas (Mercedes Hernández) young son Jesús sets off for the US border intending to find a job in America. A short while later she learns that the friend he was travelling with has been found murdered near the border crossing – her son is missing and assumed dead too. Unable to live with the uncertainty of his fate, Magdalena traces his journey north through lawless territories on a search for answers. A very grim sort of road movie, Identifying Features puts a spotlight on the huge upswing in violence and disappearances in Northern Mexico in recent years.
I was personally drawn to this film due to a recent experience of my own. I travelled over 1200 miles through Mexico earlier this year, nearly entirely on public buses as are seen in the film. I met lots of friendly, talkative Mexicans keen to tell me about their beautiful country, and several of them were people who had moved south to escape the growing violence near the border. There is a worrying fear that due to corruption the authorities have essentially given up on some areas of the northern states – allowing them to be taken over by gangs fuelled by the drug trade with the USA. Whilst Mexico City and the tourist zones are growing in wealth year by year it is the sad reality that thousands of families are seeing their relatives disappear in violent circumstances, never to be heard from again. A vital film then in bringing attention to this issue when the government perhaps want to keep it from people outside their borders.
The fact that this film comes from an entirely female creative team (director, producer, writer, D.O.P, editor and composer) feels evident in it’s centering of a violent story on a mother’s search. The filmmakers stated they wanted to tell the stories of the families who are left behind and the effects the loss of a person has on them. Accordingly Magdalena meets several other lost souls along her journey who are also looking for missing family members. Acting performances are strong all round and carried by Mercedes Hernández’ committed maternal worry.
Identifying Features is beautifully shot in widescreen, capturing some stunning landscapes shown in a lonely desolation with all their inhabitants scared off or killed. There are some artfully captured scenes shot in total darkness and lit only with firelight or torches which are particularly effective.
Where the film fails is that it makes no attempt to contextualise the events seen taking place. There is never any explanation of who is taking people or why – though the suspects are seen in the film no hint is given to their motives, instead throwing out a mysterious superstitious claim that it is ”the devil” who is to blame and even showing a stylized devil figure in one of the scenes. It is obviously an artistic choice to approach the storytelling this way, but I do worry that it fails to do justice to the very real events taking place and will rob audiences outside Mexico of the chance to become better educated.
A moving film about a mothers love and the torturous need to know what has happened to a missing person. But I do wish they had left mythology out of this odyssey and put more focus on the real socio-political issues.
Identifying Features premieres in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival on 15th October 2020