Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 16th, 2021
Prayers for the Stolen (Tatiana Huezo, 2021) 4 out of 4 stars.
Out of tragic circumstances can come beautiful art, and Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen (“Noche de fuego” in Spanish) shows us how it’s done. Adapted from Jennifer Clement’s eponymous 2014 novel, the film marks the director’s first fiction feature, though she has previously made feature documentaries such as the 2016 Tempestad. Filmed in the town of Neblinas, located 360 kilometers to the north of Mexico City, perched atop gorgeous mountains, Prayers for the Stolen follows the lives of the region’s residents—particularly the women—as they navigate the dangers of both military and cartel operations. Given the frequent collusion between the two groups, there’s nowhere to run when things turn dangerous, which is most of the time. Despite the oppressive atmosphere, Huezo fills her frame with stunningly beautiful images, the better to contrast with the ugliness not so far below the surface. It’s a stunning narrative debut.
The story begins with 9-year-old protagonist Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) climbing into a hole just dug by her and her mother, Rita (Mayra Batalla, Cindy La Regia). It’s just the right size for Ana, looking uncomfortably like a shallow grave; the full import of this pit will be revealed soon enough. Then, Huezo takes the time to establish the place, using Terrence-Malickian shots of forest nature and insects to showcase the lush fauna and flora in which Ana lives. That’s not all that thrives there, however, for the area is also home to poppy fields, source of steady income for the locals despite the frequent helicopter-dropped poison from the army. And occasionally, the cartel will swing by to grab a young woman just as she matures, for reasons all to depressingly obvious. Hence that hole, now covered with a makeshift camouflage top. Should they ever come for Ana, Rita will be ready.
These details only slowly come out, as we initially spend time with Ana and her two best friends, Paula and María (the latter of whom has a cleft palate). Rita avoids working in the poppy fields, but not so María’s mom. Everyone believes that doing so provides some form of protection from the cartel. Plus, María’s brother works in the local quarry, also controlled by the cartel; that should help, too. But Rita and Paula’s mother decide that their girls will better be protected by cutting their hair, thereby keeping them as masculine looking as possible. Meanwhile, the itinerant schoolteacher is outraged when he discovers what can happen to the region’s women, and threatens to leave, but the reaction of the parents is not what he hopes it will be. In a locale with so few opportunities, who dares upset long-held customs? The desperation of everyone is brought home nightly as they climb the hills for better reception to call relatives working abroad, as does Rita, whose husband, away in America, barely responds. Without options, people make terrible compromises.
All comes to a head soon after the midpoint, when in a masterful transition, Huezo fast-forwards five years to Ana and her friends’ adolescence. Or rather, the cusp of it, as womanhood beckons just around the corner. This older Ana (Marya Membreño) is bolder and more assertive, but without a firm grasp of the risks she courts. Spending time with a boy (María’s now-hottie of a brother), she also moons after a new teacher, this one as charming as he is insistent that his students take charge of their lives. But events have a way of overtaking resolve. Before the big, upsetting climax, we watch as María has her palate repaired via surgery, Paula gets burned by one of the constant poison clouds, and Ana starts menstruating, each a foreshadowing of major change—or disaster—fast approaching. It all combines in a brilliant commentary on the abuse of power that is not only a meditation on Mexico today, but on all societies that treat women as commodities. Those that are stolen may never return, but their memories burn brightly, hopefully leading the way to reform. At least we can dream.