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Actress Mercedes Hernández plays the role of Magdalena, who sets out to search for her son.

Film brings to life the suffering of a mother searching for her missing child

Identifying Features is fiction but the story is comparable to countless real-life ones in Mexico

An award-winning Mexican film about a mother’s search for her missing son will begin screening in cinemas this Thursday.

Sin Señas Particulares (rendered in English as Identifying Features) is a low-budget film directed by Fernanda Valadez that won best picture at the 2020 edition of the Morelia International Film Festival.

It recounts the story of Magdalena, a mother whose son disappeared while traveling north from Guanajuato to seek a better life in the United States. She also heads north but to try to find out what happened to her son. During her journey she comes across other people who are also looking for their missing loved ones, a common situation in Mexico where there are more than 90,000 missing people.

“Magdalena embarks on a journey to find her son, who disappeared on his way to the Mexico-U.S. border. Guided by her strong will, she travels across the desolate landscapes of today’s Mexico, where victims and perpetrators wander together,” says a Morelia film festival synopsis of the movie.

Magdalena, who has never before left her home town and doesn’t know how to read or write, is confronted with a “corrupt and saturated [justice] system,” according to a review by the newspaper El País.

Despite what she is told by the authorities, she refuses to accept that her son is dead because files she is given about his supposed death make no mention of his identifying features.

The film, which also won prizes at the Sundance and San Sebastián film festivals, takes viewers on an “almost hypnotic visual experience,” El País said. It has a soundtrack capable of accelerating or slowing down the pace of the film at will.

The script was co-written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero, who was once a student of the first-time feature film director.

The former said that the film alludes to the period after former president Felipe Calderón launched the militarized war on drug cartels in late 2006. Thousands of people subsequently disappeared, and kidnappings remain a major problem in Mexico today, although the crime was down 29% in the first half of 2021.

“Mothers of the victims became detectives and activists, and they obtained more information than the authorities at times,” Valadez said, referring to the years when Calderón was in office.

Magdalena is played by Mercedes Hernández, who won the best actress prize at last year’s film festival in Morelia.

Unlike some other Mexican films that are based on true stories, Sin Señas Particulares tells a fictional story albeit one that is comparable to countless real-life ones.

Valadez said the acclaim for the film was unexpected. “We weren’t prepared [for that]. It’s a very small film with a small budget. … As we didn’t have expectations, we had the freedom to tell a story without thinking about what would happen later at festivals or with an audience,” she said.

Two other Mexican films that explore themes of violence have also won critical acclaim recently. La Civil and Noche de Fuego (Prayers for the Stolen) both won prizes at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Hernández also appears in La Civil, which received an eight-minute-long standing ovation at Cannes, as well as Somos, a Netflix series based on a story published by investigative news agency ProPublica that revealed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s role in setting off a massacre in northern Mexico in 2011.

With reports from El País 

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