Deep in the mountains, a Mexican town at war is seen through the eyes of three young girls: Ana, Maria, and Paula. Directed by Tatiana Huezo, in her narrative directorial debut, Prayers for the Stolen, tells the story of these three girls as they wrestle with coming-of-age in a war torn village.
Huezo, who has a background in documentary filmmaking, tells this story of three young girls from childhood to adolescence. She uses her background in the narrative structure of the film, as it is laid out chronologically just how the story is told. While the film’s focus is on the friendship of these three girls, the key point of view is with Ana. Ana is first seen as a young child, played by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González, digging a hole in the ground with her mother, big enough for her to fit in. Initially, it is unknown what this hole is for, but after Ana stumbles on the bloody and grieving mother of one of her neighbors screaming for their child, there’s a realization that the hole was a way for Ana to hide. As Huezo starts to show, hiding is a skill young girls in this town must know. This isn’t just hiding in holes, but hiding who they are as a person altogether. In one of the more emotional scenes, Ana has to have her hair cut to look like a boy. This seeming loss of Ana’s girlhood is heartbreaking, and Ana Cristina Ordóñez González delivers a performance that is one of the most emotional of the year.
While on the outside Ana has to hide her true self, inside she is still very much a kid, and thanks to her friends Maria and Paula, there is real magic to the friendship these children share. Huezo effectively draws the audience into the relationship between these children and shows you there is still some magic left in these mountains, but it also is quick to remind you that in any moment that can all change. It’s always risky using child actors, but Huezo was able to pull it off with grace, as the time spent with these children is the best of the entire film. Huezo was able to show that even if their world, at times, didn’t seem beautiful, the charm was never lost. Every one of the child actors: Blanca Itzel Pérez (Maria), Camila Gaal Paula), and of course Ana Cristina Ordóñez González (Ana), really elevated these moments on screen. There is laughter and love, even if there is imminent danger in the air, their friendship reigns true, and this never changes when they get older.
As the film fast forwards from their childhood years to their young adult years, the young girls begin to grow, and the danger feels much closer. Still, the trio never loses their magic, they still are able to find the fascinating moments between the turmoil of the world around them. Huezo captures this beauty in nature and in their friendship; they go out, drink, talk to guys, but they always remain together as a pack. She also was able to display the horrors, as in one of the more emotional moments, Paula (Alejandra Camacho), on her way to school, is covered in some sort of gas. Her skin is burned and her eyes and mouth are shut in fear of breathing the toxin in, but Ana (Marya Membreño) and Maria (Giselle Barrera Sánchez) are quick to her side to help her wash off what she can, and to sit with her through the pain.
When the girls get older they become more aware of their surroundings, and this leads to them having to seek out the magical moments that once came so naturally. Since the story is told in order, and a lot of the movie is told in “day in the life” segments, there are times where it feels like a moment itself might linger for a bit too long. While this could be done intentionally to try to stay in these moments longer, it also causes the film to feel stretched a bit thin. When the story is told through the young girl’s point of view, specifically Ana’s, and there is an unknowing part of her that bleeds out to the audience. As the story pivots to the girls at an older age, they understand the severity of the situation a little more, but it never felt like they fully understood why they were in the situation in the first place. It is never fully explained to them, or the audience, fully what is happening in the village, and this creates a different sense of unknowing that creates distance between the subject of the film and the people watching it.
However, when the film reaches its climax it is met with a tense and heartbreaking ending that really brings every horror that was always in the shadows to light. It is hauntingly shot and directed by Tatiana Huezo and the performances, most of which were debuts, were all incredible. The pain, hurt, heartbreak, and fear is palpable through every moment.
Prayers for the Stolen is just that: a prayer for the people who are ripped from their home and taken away. This film is a tense, magical, and well-crafted debut from Tatiana Huezo. It is beautiful and taut, but the performances are what really drive this film, led by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González in a magnificent debut. It does falter some towards the back half, losing some of the childhood magic, but Huezo does her best to keep the charm and friendship at the forefront of this story. The film might not dive into any of the overarching issues happening in the mountains, but nevertheless Prayers for the Stolen is a powerfully moving and emotional story about the importance of friendship in tumultuous times.
Prayers for the Stolen is Mexico’s submission for the International Feature Film Oscar at the 94th Academy Awards and will be in select theaters and available to stream on Netflix November 17, 2021.