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Prayers for the Stolen review: A heart-wrenching story of survival amid drug cartels in Mexican hinterlands

Streaming on MUBI, documentary filmmaker Tatiana Huezo’s first feature narrative is adapted from Jennifer Clement’s 2012 novel of the same name.

  • Reema Gowalla

Last Updated: 10.56 AM, May 12, 2022

Prayers for the Stolen review: A heart-wrenching story of survival amid drug cartels in Mexican hinterlands
A still from the film

STORY: Risking being killed or snatched away by drug cartels and human traffickers, three little girls dare to survive and steal the little joys of life in a remote village in Mexico.

REVIEW: Mexican-El Salvadoran documentarian Tatiana Huezo’s first feature film Prayers for the Stolen is a blistering tale of terror in the sylvan hinterland of Mexico, where single mothers dig graves to protect their daughters from brutal drug lords and human traffickers. Four-year-old Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) gets into alert mode whenever she hears the dogs barking and the convoy of black SUVs roaring along the road below their shabby little home on a mountain slope. She knows the drill the moment her mother Rita (Mayra Batalla) says, “hide” - Ana quickly slides into the shallow grave and stays there motionless until it’s safe to come out again.

Rife with rampant incidents of drug cartels picking young girls, people in the rural community in Guerrero are living a horrifying life amid the pristine natural beauty of rural Mexico. While Ana and her friends - ​​Paula (Camila Gaal) and María (Blanca Itzel Pérez) - roam about the verdant surroundings dotted by red poppy flowers, Rita and the other women in the village often gather at a salon nearby. Most of their husbands are away from home, while the mothers are just about managing to earn a living through petty jobs, one of which is to scrape the opiate goop out of the poppy plants. As if the perils of the cartels are not enough, helicopters are sent by the federal government every once in a while, to spray poison over the poppy fields where people work, to which kids fall prey.

Little Ana was still okay wearing boys’ clothes, but it broke heart when one day her mother took her to the salon and got her long hair chopped off. Paula, too, had a haircut, while María’s cleft lip meant that she was spared. Although petrified almost all the time, these innocent girls still manage to steal moments of a carefree childhood - be it in their primary school or at a pond in the middle of the forest. Their telepathic friendship is the only silver lining, as the remote village gets engulfed in increasing episodes of violence and killings. Growing up amid hostilities, the three friends are now teenagers - Ana (Marya Membreño), Paula (Alejandra Camacho) and María (Giselle Barrera Sánchez) - trying to navigate the nuances of life, as their ‘hiding’ ritual continues.

Risking his own life, the only school teacher in the village, Leonardo (Guillermo Villegas), is trying his best to impart at least primary education. But given the circumstances, the future of the village children looks bleak unless they escape from there.

Inspired by Jennifer Clement’s 2012 novel of the same name, Prayers for the Stolen was Mexico’s official submission for the Oscars. An extremely powerful narrative, the 111-film is every bit profound and dazzling. In a way, the approach and treatment of the script is still a lot like a documentary. The rural community’s predicament and survival remain the focal point of the movie, in the absence of a structured plot.

VERDICT: A must-watch! Prayers for the Stolen is a heart-wrenching story punctuated by a meditative and sensorial style of storytelling and some splendid performances. Tatiana marvellously juxtaposes the human emotions of motherly love, friendship and fear in a poignant narrative based on true stories. Bruised souls and strong survival instincts are the real heroes of the film.

*Reema Gowalla is an arts and culture journalist, who mostly writes about theatre and independent cinema, and sometimes also delves into culinary heritage.