Film Review: Prayers For The Stolen – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director:  Tatiana Huezo

Beautiful and lush, and yet sparse and desolate, this coming-of-age drama takes place on the heroin fields of Mexico. Tatiana Huezo’s breath-taking first feature follows Ana as she negotiates growing up in a region where drug cartels steal girls from their mothers.

Prayers For The Stolen begins with Ana practising her escape from the men who the police seem powerless to stop. Her mother digs a shallow grave that Ana must hide in. It’s a chilling start, and even as the film moves to other areas of Ana’s life, the fear of abduction runs through the film like a vein. So worried is Ana’s mother that her daughter will be taken she begins to dress Ana like a boy, taking her to the local salon to get her hair chopped off. Ana’s tears flow unchecked as she watches the scissors begin their work.

Ana’s friend Paula also sports a boyish crop, but Maria is allowed to keep her hair long. Perhaps her cleft lip protects her. The three girls are inseparable, and try to cultivate their closeness even more by carrying out brain reading exercises, attempting to create psychic bonds. They keep up these games into their early teens when they then begin to have crushes on older boys and their male teachers.

One of the ways to obtain protection from the drug gangs is to work for them, collecting the black opium paste that oozes out of the poppy seed heads on the fields that are planted on the side of the mountains. Maria’s brother makes money by weighing out the paste that is collected. Occasionally, government helicopters swoop over the landscape spraying chemicals over the poppy fields and any passers-by, including children on their way to school.

Although based on the novel by Jennifer Clement, Huezo’s film sometimes reassembles a documentary. Indeed her previous film was the documentary Tempestad that looked at human trafficking. Her view remains objective, and with no music to direct the emotions the film lacks warmth. Huezo is sure to document the natural world as much as the human one, finding scorpions and snakes at the edge of the forest. The man-made quarry, where some of the villagers work, is a deep scar on the environment, and seems more brutal than the poppy fields and their terrible beauty that reaches beyond this corner of Mexico.

There are a few glimpses of humour like the scene where the whole village is out on the mountain in early evening, everyone holding their mobile phones to the sky in an effort to get reception. But usually the tone of the film imbues everything with value and portent with the result that film lacks variety. Its focus is too intense.

All the young actors give fine performances and their inscrutability matches the distance of Huezo’s camera. As the teenage Ana, Marya Membreño gives little away, and observes rather than acts. She ably demonstrates Ana’s isolation in a world that is run by men with guns.

Prayers for the Stolen is screening at the London Film Festival.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Bleak beauty

The Reviews Hub - Film

The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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