Small Screen Berkeley: ‘Identifying Features’ and ‘Mayor’

Reviewed: There’s no time for the sentimental in ‘Identifying Features,’ a good film with a great score; while ‘Mayor’ tells the story of the popular mayor of Ramallah, Musa Hadi.

Identifying Features. Photo: Courtesy Kino Lorber

If you read my ‘Favorite Films of 2020’ column late last year, you know how much I admired my number one film, Buoyancy. A bleak tale of 21st century slavery in Southeast Asia, the film depicted terrible events in fraught scenes that wouldn’t seem out of place in a horror film.

Though taking place half a world away, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Buoyancy as I watched Sin señas particulares (Identifying Features, streaming via the Virtual Roxie and Pacific Film Archive). Despite being a neo-realistic examination of 21st century life in what we still disparagingly refer to as ‘the developing world’, the film successfully adapts horror genre tropes to an otherwise grimly believable tale.

Directed by Fernanda Valadez, Identifying Features is set in northern Mexico, where drug lords, people smugglers, and ordinary citizens live together in uneasy, fractious and violent circumstances. Weary of living amidst constant danger, young men Rigo and Jesus depart for the perceived safety of Arizona, never to be heard from again.

Jesus’ mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) is bound and determined to find her son – or, more likely, what remains of him. Setting aside fears and concerns for her own safety, Magdalena follows the few meager clues her child has left behind, inevitably crossing paths with some very dangerous people as she gets closer to the border.

Along the way, she meets Miguel (David Illescas), who’s returning home after being deported from the United States. A mother in search of a son and a son returning to his mother: while the parallels between them are obvious, Valadez doesn’t allows Magdalena and Miguel’s relationship to descend into weepy, redemptive sentimentalism. Indeed, there’s simply no time for the sentimental in Identifying Features, which also benefits from Clarice Jensen’s ominous score, built on amplified organ swells that expand and contract like a particularly grim Terry Riley piece. It’s great music accompanying a very good film that will definitely feature on 2021’s end of year favorites list.

‘Mayor’ tells the story of Musa Hadid

Mayor. Photo: Courtesy Pacific Film Archive

It’s probably fair to say that most politicians — even the ones who keep winning elections — aren’t particularly popular with their constituents. There have always a few exceptions, though — men and women able to forge personal connections with their electorate and convince them (truthfully or otherwise) that they really are on the side of the common folk.

Judging from what we see in Mayor (screening via Pacific Film Archive), Musa Hadid — mayor of the West Bank town of Ramallah, Palestine — is genuinely popular. A Christian, Hadid selflessly represents his multi-faith constituents by serving on the front lines of the political struggle for Palestinian self-determination whilst keeping the lights on and the buses running.

Equally at ease hosting German diplomats as he is making sure Ramallah’s Christmas celebrations go off without a hitch, this mayor is utterly fearless. There’s a lengthy sequence of Hadid keeping tabs on an Israeli army incursion into Ramallah, and not from a distance: the danger is palpable, but Hadid doesn’t shirk from observing the occupiers. No wonder he just got re-elected to a second term.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.