Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego) is documentary filmmaker Tatiana Huezo's first narrative feature, where she also serves as screenwriter. An adaptation of Jennifer Clement’s novel of the same name, the film debuted at this year's Cannes Film Festival via the Director's Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) and tackles the kidnapping and femicide of women and young girls who live in fear of the Mexican drug cartel and how the experience changed the lives of three adolescent girls who use their imagination to escape the perils of reality.
The film starts with an unnamed young girl learning to bury herself in a hole in the ground. The film later reveals this is a way to hide when the cartel plows through their small rural town at random, and the people choose to comply and not fight back. Eight-year-old Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) and her mother Rita (Mayra Batalla) get by on gleaning the cartel's poppy fields, which is the only work she can find. Her father isn't in the picture, so Rita is struggling between making money and protecting her child. While out collecting milk, Ana sees the mother of a young girl beaten, bloodied, and her daughter missing. This experience makes Ana curious enough to ask her mother what’s happening as she doesn't fully understand what she just saw.
The townspeople believe that girls will appear less attractive to their kidnappers if they get boyish haircuts. Ana and her friend Paula (Camila Gaal) are the first to receive the haircut. Their other friend Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez) gets her hair cut last after facial reconstructive surgery on her cleft lip. The trio holds tight to one another, building a queer sisterhood of sorts, finding solace and community in one another despite their circumstances. Ana is the fearless one who wants a sense of independence. Maria is timid but believes that the three have a spiritual connection. While Paula, the carefree one, likes to have fun.
They create a game where one emits a sound and they all sync up to this sound. The point of the game is to guess what the other is thinking, feeling, or what they will sound like. This is their form of solidarity and what keeps them connected as friends. This imagined environment allows them to dissociate and create their own world together. However, once the girls are aged up (Ana goes from 8 to 13 and is played by Marya Membreño), the truth hits home, and they become ultra-hypervigilant to stay alive.
Coming from a documentary film background, Huezo unravels the plot of her film just like one. Events come chronologically, and every meticulous detail of Ana's life is on display. The sense of dystopian-like danger is palpable throughout, but the audience doesn't see it until the film is almost over. This doesn't serve the movie because it's difficult to tell what type of conclusion it's leading to. After some time processing the film, a lightbulb went off for me. Ana is our gaze into the tumultuous world Huezo creates. You spend so much time with these girls that you care and want to protect them. This connection with the audience is why the ending of Prayers for the Stolen is so damn bleak.
The magic the trio manifests, paired with the reality that one of them has been kidnapped, is hard to swallow. One, because it's depressing, and two, because the viewer doesn't have the opportunity to deal with the circumstances before the movie ends. I understand why it took so long to get to the point, but it feels like time was wasted. However, the last scene nearly brought me to tears with its powerful statement about friendship, why it is so important, and how it transcends beyond the imminent dangers of the world. Despite the narrative challenges, Prayers for the Stolen is a movie that forces you to sit with every discomforting moment of these young girls' plight, and ask you to put yourself in their shoes.