THE STORY – Three young girls on the path to adolescence examine life in a town at war.
THE CAST – Ana Cristina Ordóñez González, Marya Membreño, Mayra Batalla, Blanca Itzel Pérez, Camila Gaal, Giselle Barrera Sánchez, Alejandra Camacho, Julián Guzmán Girón, José Estrada, Norma Pablo, Eileen Yáñez & Memo Villegas
THE TEAM – Tatiana Huezo (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
A young girl and her mother furiously are digging in the dirt, panting with effort. Eventually, the girl lies down in the hole that they’ve dug. Is it meant to be a grave or a hiding place? The duality of that opening image hangs over Tatiana Huezo’s “Prayers for the Stolen” like a fog, obscuring our far sight even as we can see our immediate surroundings. After working for the past decade in documentaries, this is Huezo’s first full-length narrative feature, and that influence is palpable. Her documentarian instincts are both a help and a hindrance to “Prayers for the Stolen,” creating a strong sense of place while lacking enough of a driving force to keep this coming of age story engaging all the way through.
The film takes place in a rural town in Mexico near a rock quarry and poppy fields that provide jobs for the town’s residents. Most of the men have left for better-paying jobs elsewhere, leaving the women behind to wait for money that might never come. The schoolhouse has trouble keeping teachers longer than a year, and the residents live in constant fear of… something. What exactly is never fully explained, but when the word “cartel” starts getting thrown around and the appearance of mysterious black SUVs causes people to run and hide, it’s not too hard to figure it out. It is this environment in which young Ana and her friends Paula and Maria grow up, and this is the film’s narrative spine: What is it like to grow up in a place where you don’t have much hope of a future, assuming you survive long enough to become an adult?
The ace up Huezo’s sleeve is a cast of incredibly natural child actors who are incredibly easy to empathize with. Ana Cristina Ordóñez, as young Ana, is especially gifted, at one point silently breaking down in tears like an old pro. As Ana’s mother, Mayra Batalla is also great as a woman numbed to the world’s dangers but forced to be vigilant for the sake of her daughter. The cast creates a true community, a group of people united by circumstance who will do what little they can to protect their own. A mid-film time jump happens seamlessly, as the girls grow into teenagers who are much more difficult to disguise as females. As the teenage Ana, Mayra Membreño has just as expressive a face as her younger counterpart, and she handles the heavier dramatic material with a similar beyond-her-years maturity.
The performances are not the only element of the film that works so well, though. The cinematography is beautifully evocative, capturing so many small details that build out this world from a child’s-eye perspective. The growing shaft of light from a door opening ever so slightly, the chunks of mud on a sandal left out in the rain, the simple majesty of insects going about their daily business – cinematographer Dariela Ludlow shows us everything from Ana’s perspective, with nothing glorified or given extra emphasis, but presented just as it is, immersing us in Ana’s world. The problem is that there isn’t enough of a narrative engine to pull us along with all this effective imagery. “Prayers for the Stolen” is very much a slice-of-life drama, walking us through these characters’ lives with hardly any plot to speak of. Even though events happen in the second half that follows up on items from the first half (a cleft palate surgery, a phone call with Ana’s father, working in the poppy fields), there’s not really anything that connects scenes together other than the passing of time; something happens, time passes, then something else happens. The characters have no goal to work towards other than staying alive, although even that doesn’t feel particularly urgent until the last act. That final act is certainly impactful (that child’s-eye view is indelible) but getting there is some slow going. The solid performances and camerawork just aren’t enough to fully compensate for the story’s languid pacing and meandering nature. It’s good enough to recommend but hard to do so enthusiastically.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Fully engulfs you in its child’s-eye view of the world, with fantastic performances that accumulate emotional power as the stakes get raised in the film’s last act.
THE BAD – The reserved storytelling style lacks forward momentum.
THE OSCARS – None