Film review: ‘Identifying Features’ takes us into Mexico’s cartel territory

Women play the biggest roles in bringing the tale to screen


Once again, a Mexican director is giving us one of the best films of the year. And this time the director isn’t a man. Her name is Fernanda Valadez, and she has teamed up with a crew made up predominantly of women to bring us “Identifying Features.”

Valadez also co-wrote the screenplay with Astrid Rondero. And the cinematography is by Claudia Becerril; art direction by Daila Reyes; editing by Valadez, Rondero and Susan Korda; and original music by Clarice Jensen.

The story focuses on a mother named Magdalena, played by Mercedes Hernandez, who lets her son leave their home in Guanajuato, Mexico, for the U.S. border, where he hopes to find work. He and a friend from town take a bus north, and both of them go missing. After weeks of waiting, the two families go to federal authorities to see whether they can help. The authorities basically say no, but bring the families a book of photos of recently discovered bodies. One of the bodies was the friend who was accompanying Magdalena’s son.

After seeing the photos of the body, Magdalena is determined to find out whether her son is still alive. She is told secretly, by one of the law enforcement officials, that a bus on which her son had been riding might have been hijacked by cartel members. And she’s told that an old man who survived the hijacking might know what happened to her son. The only problem: The man lives in a faraway town, one that will take Magdalena through dangerous territory controlled by gangs.

The script has a dual storyline. And the other follows Miguel (David Illescas), who has been arrested after spending several years in the United States and is deported back to Mexico. He is lost and has no place to go but home to his mother — and his home in dangerous territory, too.

You can sort of see where this story is going, or at least you think you do. Magdalena is looking for her son. Miguel is looking for his mother. They seem destined to meet in a town under siege.

But what happens after that meeting takes a wild turn that’s not predictable at all. Valadez weaves the tales beautifully, with a bit of magical realism and a lot of empathy.

“Identifying Features” is the directorial debut from Valadez. And its success means that she may be joining the ranks of such Mexican directors as Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu.

It is streaming at the Austin Film Society’s website, It’s in Spanish with English subtitles.

And by the way, “Identifying Features” won the best foreign-language film award at the recent IFP Gotham Awards. It’s that good.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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