Identifying Features review — A descent into darkness

Directed by Fernanda Valadez | Written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero | 95 min | On Demand

This Mexican film paints an astonishing, powerful portrait of a national nightmare made personal. It’s a deeply affecting, if brutally bleak journey. It tells the story of one woman seeking the fate of her son who has disappeared into the bottomless chasm of the county’s drug war.

Mercedes Hernández is Magdalena. She lives with her husband, Pedro (Xicoténcatl Ulloa) in Guanajuat, on a small plot of land where they eke out a living. Their teenaged son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) wants more from his life, and leaves with a friend heading for the American border, anticipating work in Arizona.

Two months later, Magdalena hasn’t heard from him. She follows his trail to the border. Authorities show her an enormous binder, photos of the bodies discovered in shallow graves in just the past two months. Some are burned. Magdalena makes the decision to stay, to look for clues to what happened to her son, even if it means she only finds his remains. This while, at the same time, we follow Miguel (David Illescas), another young man returning to Mexico. He’s looking for his mother.

First time feature filmmaker Valadez, with DP Claudia Becerril Bulos, know exactly what they’re doing here. The camera picks and chooses what to show, vacillating between intimate close-ups and a chilling distance. It leaves plenty unseen. Through the course of the film we ease from the unvarnished grit of docudrama to a desperate poetry to, finally, inverted landscapes and psychedelia. The trip is bad, but the only way out is through.

There’s something both wondrous and terrible here: a scene where man tells his story in an indigenous language that remains untranslated, but we get the distorted vision of his fragmented memory. At that point we see a literally demonic figure, the evil that haunts the film, manifest. The final lesson Magdalena learns is the horror can be delivered by the otherwise most innocent, and most loved, among us.

Gird yourself for this one, but don’t let Identifying Features slip by.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.