Review: “Prayers for the Stolen” shows solidarity in friendship

Review: "Prayers for the Stolen" shows solidarity in friendship

As their lives crumble around them, three young friends hold each other together in this harrowing film.
Published: November 11, 2021
Characters Rita and Ana hug in the film Prayers for the Stolen
(From L-R): Mayra Batalla and Marya Membreño in Prayers for the Stolen

Each character in director Tatiana Huezo’s film Prayers for the Stolen mines. Miners pack the earth with explosives to extract the limestone. The cartel viciously mines the village for girls to traffic. Village workers mine poppy bulbs for the precious black syrup sold by the cartel. But the film refuses to mine the audience for emotion; that is willingly given. Huezo’s relentless and harrowing work, based on the 2014 novel by Jennifer Clement, observes the childhood and adolescence of three girls in a mountain village in Mexico. They endure the poisoning of their land, kidnappings, death and poverty, surviving through life-giving friendship.

The film opens with a black screen; heavy breathing stimulates the senses. As the scene fades into view, main character Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) digs in the earth with her damaged yet protective mother Rita (Marya Batalla). Rita must measure Ana for her hiding place for when the cartel rumbles into town to steal young girls. Ana lies in the shallow grave at dusk, fearful but accepting of the drastic measures. The villagers can’t afford warmhearted emotion, so the three friends emote into one another. They ritualistically hold each other in a tight embrace and meditatively hum, blocking out the horrors of the world around them. As light pours into the cinderblock hut, the camera circles around the girls. They fight the terror with their refusal to bow to it. As they grow from children to young women, they laugh, play games, have crushes always within a few feet of inescapable, traumatic scenes. 

Ana Cristina Ordóñez González as main character Ana has her hair cut in the film Prayers for the Stolen
Ana Cristina Ordóñez González in Prayers for the Stolen

But childhood innocence lasts as long as a sunrise in this village. Huezo reveals the path to adulthood through their mothers. Rita’s full time job as Ana’s sole protector wears her down. She copes with alcohol, hurling a bottle at Ana in a drunken rage. Batalla’s fierce physicality portrays Rita’s violent love; her gentleness stolen by their circumstances.

In Prayers for the Stolen, women protect women in a world where mother nature is ravaged for her raw materials. The men have gone, the soldiers cower in the presence of the cartel, the young men fail in protecting the girls. Their beauty salon stands as the last remaining refuge for them to gather in solidarity and drink in small luxuries. The girls’ wordless acts of rebellion-a comforting touch, a goofy smile, a tender glance- don’t defeat evil, but they make it bearable. Acting performances, untainted by formal training, heighten the sense of realism. Shaky, documentary-style cinematography by Director of Photography Dariela Ludlow elevates the chaos surrounding the characters, while more fluid movements accompany scarce glimpses of ebullience. Lena Esquenazi’s sound design engulfs the audience in the gunfire, chatter and flames. The visceral intensity of the film proves a tough watch that’s overlong at some points. Huezo, who also penned the screenplay, also doesn’t give her three main girls the character depth they deserve. They feel interchangeable, as if the profundity was reserved for the world around them. She unflinchingly presents their world as it is: cartel attacks, horrific pesticide dumps and imperfect people mining each other for the only things they have left: community and friendship. 

 

Prayers for the Stolen will be released on Netflix on November 17th.

Avatar for Madelyn Geyer

is a digital producer for The NewsHouse as well as a journalist, critic, and writer.