Mercedes Hernández in Identifying Features (2020)
At the core of Identifying Features, the haunting feature directorial debut by Fernanda Valadez, is a woman named Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) who takes matters into her own hands after the disappearance of her son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela). Amidst the horrifying realities of immigration, and the many families searching for loved ones who have disappeared crossing the Mexican border, the story centers on one woman’s experience of not accepting the word of authorities who presume her son is dead. Determined not to return home until she finds her son, Magdalena travels where the truth takes her. The film plays out as a slow-burning drama that unravels in hypnotic, quiet pursuit of telling a truthful story. By staying close to Magdalena while also exploring the interconnectedness of her experience, Identifying Features makes an emotionally stunning impact that builds to an utterly devastating conclusion.
Stunning cinematography by Claudia Becerril Bulos shines through each frame, starting with the illuminating opening scene. A brief moment of Magdalena watching from a distance, as her son and another boy Rigo set out for the US, establishes a sense of loneliness that continues to grow from this moment forward. In the blink of an eye, her son disappears from her life, and authorities presume the worst after his companion Rigo’s body is identified when the mothers of these two boys flip through photos. That families have to flip through distressing images of numerous people and discarded belongings in order to identify a loved one is one of the many painful realities brought to the forefront. What the film establishes so hauntingly is the troubling environment in which families are denied answers and pushed to accept that their loved ones are gone, despite not being able to identify their bodies. Co-written by Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero, the story has an incredibly resonating character in Magdalena as well as in the supporting characters who influence her path towards closure. Another woman searching for her missing son Diego, who disappeared 4 years ago, believed everyone when they told her he was dead. In a moving scene where she and Magdalena meet by chance, she urges Magdalena not to make the same mistake, not to accept what the authorities say.
As she moves forward with inner strength and determination, Magdalena sees first-hand a labyrinth of life threatening corruption, throwing roadblocks on her path. She meets various people along the way; such as the woman who secretly advises her through a bathroom stall to visit a migrant’s shelter. More notably, the film weaves in the experience of a young man named Miguel (David Illescas), who returns to Mexico from US deportation and is fortuitously traveling in Magdalena’s direction. The two of them meet by chance, at a point where the film delves into a terrifying final chapter. Identifying Features strongly explores the interconnectedness of the characters and how they each cross paths (fortuitous or not) in Magdalena’s journey, which leaves behind a reverberating thought on how there are so many similar stories that go unnoticed.
Much like the progression of this film, Mercedes Hernández gives a remarkable slow-burning performance that unravels with horror. This is a performance that absolutely commands the screen in a visceral way. Her character’s determination to travel farther away from home, experiencing increasingly dangerous scenarios, is so deeply felt throughout the film. As a contrast to the painful realities happening on screen, there is an ethereal quality to some moments, most memorably in the opening scene which appears to be dream-like. From the direction and writing to the ensemble of actors, it’s remarkable to watch this collaboration of talent. With an emotionally resonating performance and story at the core, Identifying Features is a powerful feature directorial debut that will hopefully lead to more projects with Fernanda Valadez behind the camera.