Thursday, December 2, 2021

Int’l Critics Line: Mexico’s Oscar Entry ‘Prayers For The Stolen’

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Young girls hide from drug cartels in Prayers For The Stolen, Mexico’s powerful entry to the International Feature Oscar race. Directed by Tatiana Huezo and loosely based on Jennifer Clement’s novel, the film, which screens at AFI Fest on November 14 and releases theatrically and on Netflix in the U.S. and select regions on November 17, centers on three girls living in a remote mountaintop. Rich in atmosphere, it captures the sights and sounds of their daily lives, balancing the charming details of their childhood bonding with the terrible impact of the drug trade on their community.

Eight-year-old Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González) plays with her friends Paula (Camila Gaal) and Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez) while their mothers work in the poppy fields, bleeding the bulbs for opium. The children still have a carefree air; but their mothers rarely smile. Ana’s mother Rita (Mayra Batalla) is constantly on guard, fearful of the black trucks that sweep through the village, causing the pair to spring into a grim routine. Ana must hide in a shallow grave under the ground so the men don’t find her. Girls have been taken from their homes, never to return. Soon, Ana’s long hair is cut short. “Lice only like sweet things,” she is told as tears stream down her face, and we know who the lice really are, even if she doesn’t yet.

It’s a horrifying scenario, but documentarian Huezo steers well clear of horror or melodrama, opting for crisp, vivid realism from a child’s POV, with engrossing results. Many scenes elicit a smile, from a cow casually sitting on a bed, having wandered into the house, to the children escaping into their own private world. The three girls hum together in harmony, and press their heads together to play that universal game: What number am I thinking of? Their connection is enhanced by this psychic experiment, which adds a spiritual flavor. 

And so three girls grow up almost passing for boys, but it is harder to hide their sex when they become adolescents. Ana (now played by Marya Membreño) also begins to notice more about her environment, and the fate of those who stand up to the cartels. This is effectively an open prison for enslaved women, where the jailers can swoop in and pluck their young whenever they wish. According to a commentator at a bullfight, this is “The land of brave men and gorgeous women.” But with the husbands absent and the boys being tempted into the cartels, it is clear who really needs to be brave in this land. 

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