'Prayers For The Stolen' Review
In our exploration of a diverse world with very geographically specific stories, it's now time to set sights on a small mountain village in Mexico through the lens of Prayers For The Stolen (Noche de fuego in Spanish). The country's Best International Film entry at this year's Academy Awards comes from director Tatiana Huezo as her narrative debut, also acting as the writer, adapting Jennifer Clements' book with the same name. Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González as a kid, Marya Membreño as teen) is a young girl living with her opium poppy farmworker mom Rita (Mayra Batalla) in a small town. Ana and her two friends Paula (Camila Gaal, Alejandra Camacho) and Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez, Giselle Barrera Sánchez) try their best to grow up normally together while also surviving attacks of the local cartel that is terrorising the community.
Although Ana is the one leading audience throughout the movie, the story is still focused on this community as a whole whether that's shown in the way that these three friends bond with each other, or how the residents unite over their kids' education and creating safety measures when cartel trucks are arriving. Time is pretty evenly split in two chapters; when the kids are pre-teens and when they are young teenagers. First half in particular has some magic that the other one doesn't as Ordóñez González is an especially great find among the cast of several new faces, bringing a welcomed mix of innocence and expressive features. Scenes between her and Batalla feel immensely moving yet conflicted which emphasises the overall atmosphere in the town they are living in.
Huezo and cinematographer Dariela Ludlow never lose too much momentum but their decision to use narrow frames for the children - and only opening it up when elements of danger are introduced - is very effective in that first half to draw the viewer closer and closer. The second half has slightly more misses in its acting department, Membreño suffering from lack of chemistry with Batalla and distractingly miscast Julián Guzmán Girón (playing Margarito, Maria's brother) who I didn't even personally connect to the child version of that character until much later. There's also some structure missing in the latter half, starting from the time jump and then characters going from one location to another without much connective thread. Luckily the moments that show Rita's worry over her daughter's future and the three girls' closeness aren't too rare so most of the emotional resonance still remains.
Smileys: Mayra Batalla, directing, Ana Cristina Ordóñez González
Frowneys: Structure, Julián Guzmán Girón
Someone tell those cows they need to pay moort-gage if they want that house.