LFF 2020 #6: Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020)

Jésus (Juan Jesús Varela)

This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime.  Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.

Magdalena searching for clues

The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.

Miguel (David Illescas) returning to Mexico voluntarily after being stopped by US Border Patrol. Photo by Claudia Bercerril.

The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.

A truck is stopped by masked men in the wilds of Northern Mexico

Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.

The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score by the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.

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