‘Prayers for the Stolen’ (‘Noche de Fuego’): Film Review | Cannes 2021

In her first narrative feature, documentarian Tatiana Huezo explores the devastating toll of Mexico’s narco wars through a coming-of-age drama centered on three rural girls.

Bright red flowers dot a hillside in a remote Mexican town, and the air is abuzz with the songs of insects and birds. But beneath the bucolic beauty, as in many of the striking scenes in Prayers for the Stolen, terror churns. “Liberally adapted” from Jennifer Clement’s 2014 novel of the same name, the film delves, with sensitivity and alarm, into the constant threat of violence for those living in the cross-fire of Mexico’s drug cartels, particularly women and their daughters.

The villagers of all ages who have gathered on that flowering hillside are seasonal workers in the poppy harvest, milking the plants for their narcotic gum and scraping the opium into empty food cans. The criminal organization that grows rich from their labor pays them 300 pesos ($15) per shift. Pesticides rain down from its helicopters, protecting the treasured crop and poisoning the people. For another form of trafficking, men from the cartel sometimes climb the winding road to town in monstrous SUVs in order to steal girls.

Prayers for the Stolen

The Bottom Line

A potent portrait of innocence under siege.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)

Cast: Ana Cristina Ordóñez González, Marya Membreño, Mayra Batalla

Director-screenwriter: Tatiana Huezo


1 hour 51 minutes

Writer-director Tatiana Huezo, whose nonfiction films have documented postwar trauma in El Salvador (the exceptional The Tiniest Place) and the horrors of human trafficking in Mexico (Tempestad), brings a documentary verisimilitude to her first fiction feature. The drama’s narrative shape and momentum aren’t always as assured as its setting (with outstanding design contributions from Oscar Tello and Úrsula Schneider Núñez). But as a portrait of a besieged community carrying on as best it can, the film is keenly observed, its character observations lucid and engrossing.

That’s especially true of the coming-of-age story at its center, with moments of astounding emotion delivered by the six first-time performers who play a trio of friends at two different ages. Halfway through the film, Huezo jumps from the girls’ childhood to their adolescence, when they’re old enough to understand the peril of human trafficking and the reason they wear their hair short, like boys.

The salon where the girls get their hair cut serves as a kind of matriarchal clubhouse. Most of their mothers are on their own, the men having gone north across the border for work, some of them eventually fading from contact with their families. Huezo and cinematographer Dariela Ludlow capture the strange beauty, poignant and slightly comical, of a crowd of villagers splayed across a mountain slope at dusk for the location’s Wi-Fi reception, their cellphones glowing as they talk to absent husbands and sons.

The lead character, Ana (memorably played by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González at 8 and Marya Membreño at 13), holds on to the idea that her father still loves her and her mother, Rita (Mayra Batalla), even though he no longer answers their calls. But Rita has faced the bitter truth. “I put up with a lot from your dad,” she tells Ana. “That was my mistake.”

The first haircut for 8-year-old Ana (a real onscreen event for Ordóñez González) strikes chords of stunning tenderness and intensity. (Watching the young girl cooking eggs is no less riveting.) Ana’s friend Paula (Camila Gaal), about to submit to the scissors herself, grasps Ana’s hand while she weeps, wide-eyed and silent. Their other bestie, Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez), is spared the scissors. That a girl with a harelip gets to keep her locks casts doubt on Rita’s emphatic explanation that the shearing is a preventive measure against lice. Huezo lets the truth gradually reveal itself. This is a world in which girls are stolen from their homes. It’s best not to look conventionally feminine.

Meant to reassure her daughter, Rita’s lies are increasingly strained. As dark doings unfold around them, and whole families vanish, Ana’s is the voice of conscience, Rita’s of survival. Having explored the abandoned houses of the disappeared, their tables still set for dinner, Ana doesn’t understand the grown-ups’ code of silence when her teacher, a newcomer to the area, asks questions about what happened.

Huezo has an eye for the emotional tension between mother and daughter, but also for the playfulness and resilience of childhood, even amid ghastly realities. After the movie makes its five-year leap, she and her terrific cast bring the heightened feelings of teenagers to the fore, complicated by the wariness these characters’ dangerous circumstances require. Paula (now played by Alejandra Camacho), Maria (Giselle Barrera Sánchez) and Ana enjoy an idyllic summer day at a swimming hole, and crush on their new teacher, Leonardo (Memo Villegas), who encourages them to question authority. Ana’s longtime flirtation with Maria’s brother, Margarito (Julián Guzmán Girón), now a fledgling rodeo rider, deepens, but his flunky work for the traffickers becomes a source of conflict, and his respect for the group’s money and extravagance becomes tragic.

The writer-director’s storytelling is episodic, and the episodes’ uneven impact at times gives the film a drifting feeling. But the way the center of each scene is not necessarily underlined also feels closer to real life than to formulaic dramatic structure. With a lengthy shoot — nine months — in a remote mountain town in the state of Querétaro, in north-central Mexico, Prayers for the Stolen unwinds with a strong sense of place, one that’s more than matched by the ferociously good performances of its young screen newcomers. (The filmmaking was preceded by an exhaustive casting process and three months of performance training, led by acting coach Fátima Toledo.)

The film’s original Spanish title, Noche de Fuego (Night of Fire, or Fire Night) is less evocative and less specific than the English, which taps into the awful way brutality is intertwined in the everyday. Huezo shows how alone the townspeople are in their plight, how vulnerable in their geographic isolation. A chill travels through the town when the cartel’s vehicles appear on the road. Against the traffickers’ munitions, soldiers cower too.

At the same time, Huezo is alert to the villagers’ ingenuity and endurance, as individuals and communally. The film opens with Rita and Ana digging a hole in their yard: not a grave but a place to stay alive, a hiding place for when the men come knocking. Rita trains her daughter to listen with hyperalertness and differentiate friendly sounds from those that signal danger. Ana and her friends train themselves as well: They try to read one another’s minds. Their simple experiments in telepathy are more than games; they’re binding themselves to one another, with creativity and love and a thirst for adventure. And they’re reaching for a true language, against a world of silences and lies.

Full credits

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Pimienta Films, Match Factory Productions, Desvia, Bord Cadre Films, Louverture Films, Cactus Film & Video, Jaque Content
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
Director-screenwriter: Tatiana Huezo
Based on the novel Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
Producers: Nicolás Celis, Jim Stark
Executive producer: Maya Scherr-Wilson
Director of photography: Dariela Ludlow
Production designer: Oscar Tello
Costume designer: Úrsula Schneider Núñez
Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum
Casting: Graciela Miguel Villanueva, Natalia Beristain
Acting coach: Fátima Toledo
Sound designer: Lena Esquenazi
Special makeup: Roberto Ortiz
International sales: The Match Factory

1 hour 51 minutes