While there’s no shortage of films about the violence and heartache that cartels bring to their respective homelands, writer-director Tatiana Huezo’s adaptation of Jennifer Clement’s novel “Prayers for the Stolen” (“Noche de Fuego”) takes on a different perspective, capturing the point of view of a young girl and her friends.
Rather than focus on the terror of living in a cartel-torn area, the film becomes a tale of strength, heartbreak, and jaw-dropping beauty.
The film opens with a bit of a shock: Eight-year-old Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) is digging an Ana-sized hole in the ground that her mom Rita (Mayra Batalla) made as a hiding space for her daughter. But this is no hide-and-seek game; cartels in the area are known to take girls from their homes, never to be seen again. In a town of mainly women tending to children, the mothers have trained their daughters to keep their ears open and to run and hide when they hear large Black SUVs coming. The girls never know exactly why they have to be afraid; all they know is, whatever it is, it’s bad.
Despite that knowledge, Ana and her closest friends Paula (Camila Gaal) and Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez) act like normal little girls. They giggle and play games, even in the backdrop of an empty home where their friend Juana used to live before she was taken. But the moment comes when the girls of the town must cut their gorgeous, long hair so that they will resemble little boys. This is just one of the tools the mothers use to deter men from kidnapping their girls — except for Maria, who was born with a cleft palate, which her family mistakenly believes will keep her safe.
The girls grow and mature, becoming teenagers. Ana, Paula, and Maria (now played by Marya Membreño, Alejandra Camacho, and Giselle Barrera Sánchez, respectively) start to experience those first moments of womanhood — their periods, crushing on boys, and wondering what their lives will look like. But each moment they mature is another moment they must fear, and each new day is an awakening of what it means to be a woman in a society that kidnaps and kills women, with no solutions as to how to stop it.
Writer-director Huezo has a gift for telling heart-wrenching stories about people experiencing trauma and turmoil. In “Tempestad,” she takes the journey of two women who survive injustice and frames them with love and humanity. In “Prayers,” such difficult moments as Ana being taken to get her hair cut are swiftly contrasted with moments where the girls are shown simply being children — running around the gorgeous landscape they call home, catching scorpions, and playing tag with the kids in the neighborhood. It’s a reminder that, despite all the terror that surrounds them, there is still much love and beauty among the people who live there.
Huezo and cinematographer Dariela Ludlow ground the story, mixing fantastical visuals with the harsh realities faced by the women and girls who live in these areas. Far too often, stories like this focus on the violence, but Huezo chooses instead to capture those tiny moments of joy, of childlike innocence and wonder, allowing those qualities to become a strength.
This may be one tiny change of perspective, but the film and the characters’ journey offer the many real women and girls who have been lost to femicide some dignity and humanity. And that may be the true beauty of “Prayers for the Stolen.”
“Prayers for the Stolen” opens in US theaters and on Netflix Nov. 17.