The last they heard, their sons were taking a bus to the border. Then, they were gone.
Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) is a heartbreaking Mexican-Spanish drama. It centers primarily on mothers attempting to find their missing children, depicting the terrible ordeal of some immigrants who face dangerous conditions on their journeys to new countries. This feature, with a minimalist screenplay by Valadez and Astrid Rondero, was shot on location in Guanajuato, Mexico, and tells the story of the many immigrants who go missing or die on their journeys. The personal histories of these missing men and women may end with a big question mark, but even if they cannot be found, this film attempts to render visible the pain of those left behind.
At the beginning of the film, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has her son, Jesus, pack up and leave, heading for a new life in the United States along with his friend Rigo. But when they disappear, the mothers are plunged into limbo as they await news, of which there is little. The men’s mothers travel to the police station and leaf through a thick stack of unidentified bodies, finally identifying Rigo as among the deceased. Magdalena holds out hope that somehow her son did not suffer the same fate as her friend. Determined to find out what happened to her son, whose presence haunts the film, Magdalena tenaciously journeys from home to a migrant shelter to remote mountains in search of answers. Magdalena remains somewhat of a cipher in the restrained narrative, yet her anguish is palpable as she moves across a harsh physical and emotional landscape.
This story avoids typical tropes of violence around the border and tells a deeply human story of parents trying to find their children, and children trying to find new lives for themselves. At one point, relatives of those who left Mexico reflect on the risks involved in a border crossing: “Why did he leave? He had a life here…” There are no easy answers given, except that those who leave had to try to make their own way.
As Magdalena continues to search for son, she eventually crosses paths with Miguel (David Illescas), a young Mexican man who was deported from the United States. Miguel has not been able to return to what was once his home, as it has been utterly ravaged by violence and made unrecognizable to him. They share tender moments as they become each other’s surrogate family, lost souls trying to avoid becoming ghosts too.
The film favors soft focus, the backgrounds sparkling and blurring behind her characters as we get to see them in silhouette or close-up. The camerawork is inventive and unexpected without being flashy, always keeping the focus on the faces and expressions, showing us their visages from all angles. This cinematography is devastating, equal parts splendorous and difficult to watch. The frames have a painterly composition, but also appear a bit like puzzles, and give so much visual information for audiences to attempt to understand as they hunt for clues. The story feels cryptic and mysterious, raising many more questions than answers.
The disturbing and spectral shots remind us of the violence that befell some of these immigrants, though their bodies often remain undiscovered and their stories only half-told. There are hazy and blurred shots that have the visuals and audio distorted as brutal attacks transpire. There are also frequent shots of flickering fires, whether these fires are sources of warmth in the home or scenes of horrific violence in shrouded locales. One immensely haunting shot looks at the reflection of trees in the water, and it is unclear where the sky ends and the mirror image begins when we then cut to Magdalena walking with determination as the sun sets and she makes her way to a dark house. The aesthetic is minimalist, but the emotional weight is heavy, and even as the most disturbing moments are blurred so we do not have to face their horrors fully, it is still increasingly difficult to stomach the pain these people go through as they search for better lives for themselves and their families.
The story remains enigmatic and puzzling, and it can be frustrating to reach its conclusion without receiving clarity or certainty about the images and events that were seen. While some of the imagery might seem overly opaque, the lack of information or answers reflects how these parents feel, when their children go missing without a trace or a body is found with no identification or identifying features. The methodical pace and restrained dialogue are entrancing and beguiling; first-time director Valadez showcases a carefully crafted aesthetic emphasizing isolation in this debut feature, and there are plenty of “identifying features” that signal she is a remarkable talent to follow.