Magdalena’s son Jesús emerges from the rural Guanajuato cornfield, as if from a dream, to inform his mother, without drama, that he’s leaving, heading north with his friend Rigo, to find work in Arizona. The friends’ departure across a wide, grassy valley, a seemingly idyllic, if impoverished, world, is an image that haunts the remainder of Fernanda Valadez’s affecting and lyrically photographed Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares). The suggestion is that home is an underappreciated paradise and only the Devil awaits in the underworld through which one must pass on the way to that other, so-called better life across the border. Once Jesús and Rigo go missing, Magadalena, without much to go on, sets out on her own journey to locate her son, or his remains, if nothing else. Her first stop at the border is a miserable makeshift morgue, where she begins to follow a series of leads, notably provided by sympathetic women. Magdalena’s path periodically intersects with the lives of other seekers as she winds further and further into Mexico’s borderlands, both stunningly beautiful and tragically depopulated, emptied by the reciprocal pressures of poverty and human trafficking, where there is no uncertainty that the missing are, in some way, also dead.
The eerie and dangerous world of this film, with its disembodied voices punctuating the silence, its characters wandering ghost-like, offering both solace and mystery, owes something to Juan Rulfo’s masterful short novel Pedro Páramo, as well as to the more contemporary allegorical border world of Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World. Atmosphere is as substantively developed through the excellent sound design as it is through Claudia Becerril Bules’s wonderfully disorienting and apocalyptic visuals. Through much of the film, Bules employs a persistent technique of near-field focus as we follow the actors, giving the sense, on the one hand, of characters moving into an uncertain future. On the other hand, we might read the blurring of what lies directly ahead as a perpetually impenetrable and indecipherable surface, a conceptual wall that the character (and, by association, the trailing viewer) will never see the other side of. It’s a unique and effective manifestation of border ambitions, of desire, insecurity, and psychic as well as physical and legal obstacles faced by migrants and refugees coming north.
Identifying Features is not a perfect film. It feels more than a touch too constructed, a little too neatly designed to take us to its narrative conclusion. But, to its advantage, its ethical and political implications are a good deal murkier. If, as one witness says about a victim killed during a bus hijacking, “El Diablo got him,” a viewer might wonder just who that metaphor represents in this quiet, devastated landscape. El Diablo is more than the individual he appears to be, of course. He’s a cartel, yes, but a wider one, than we may suspect. Who is it that facilitates the human trafficking under scrutiny here? Who creates its conditions? How responsible for this lawless wasteland are those who bleed rural communities economically, who provide the transport, who corruptly divert the transport, who raid the transport for new mules and assassins, who create a market for trafficking by criminalizing and fortifying the border, who disrupt with walls and wire what we’re shown was once a coherent ecosystem, all to the devastation of those who ambitiously want “to find their own road?” Identifying Features doesn’t attempt to address the full expanse of this cartel, but all its signs are there, allowing us to contemplate the evil entity long after the film’s sanguine sunsets fade to black.
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