REVIEW: There is No Hope in ‘Prayers for the Stolen’

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Prayers for the Stolen - But Why Tho

Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego) is a Spanish-language Netflix Original movie directed and written by Tatiana Huezo based on the book of the same name by Jennifer Clement. It’s about three best friends growing up among the poppy fields and cartels of rural Mexico. Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño), María (Blanca Itzel Pérez and Giselle Barrera Sánchez), and Paula (Camila Gaal and Alejandra Camacho) try to live their best lives and retain their youth, go to school, and have crushes on boys. But the new local cartel not only has a hold on their livelihoods and intimidates their teachers away, but they are prone to kidnapping young girls who are never seen again.

Don’t start watching Prayers for the Stolen until you’re ready to spend the rest of your day despondent afterward. But once you’re ready, be prepared for some excellent performances by its six young stars. They play one of three characters at two points in their lives as they grow older in their rural town and simply deal with everyday life while still trying to retain their childhoods. Many early scenes show them working, attempting unsuccessfully to call their fathers who are working in the United States to send them home money, and hiding in shallow holes they dug by hand in their backyards whenever the cartel drives by. It’s not especially thrilling to watch at all times, but a strong score behind it makes these laborious demonstrations of just what these children are up against in life sink in quickly.

And Prayers for the Stolen would surely not be a successful movie without solid performances. Each of the six children does a fantastic job of expressing a wide range of emotions, from abject terror to pure joy. It’s not an easy subject matter, and the only way the story works is if these two diametric emotions are clearly portrayed. But scenes hiding in self-dug graves juxtapose scenes playing mind-reading games in the abandoned house of a kidnapped friend make for unsettling but believable expressions of their stolen youth.

The double meaning of the film’s name is very overt. In the early parts of the movie, the film is constantly flashing to totally unrelated scenes of children working in a dangerous mining operation, on top of moments showing kids doing household work, working in the poppy fields, and working elsewise. Those mine scenes, while they are very clear tone-setters, do feel a bit extraneous as they add nothing to the plot itself. The more subtle depictions of the kids laboring, if you can even call the other ones subtle, may have sufficed in delivering the same message without dragging out the runtime or leading you to believe there is some sort of plot purpose to those scenes coming later.

The mid-film time skip was simultaneously seamless and so seamless that I didn’t even realize it happened and was immediately confused. The actors who play the kids at each age look quite similar to one another, so much so that I had to rewind at one point to make sure I wasn’t mistaken that they were suddenly older. There’s no indication of the time jump besides that they simply look older all of a sudden. It’s good that the actors so seamlessly transitioned, but it definitely had me uncertain over how much time has passed. Somebody mentions that perhaps it’s been two years, but the new actors look much older than two years senior to the younger actors.

The time jump is also really what seals the magnitude of this story. As you watch these characters get older, declaring their hopes and dreams, crushing on boys, doing well in school, and meeting other clear markers of their budding adolescence, everything also becomes as terrible as it possibly can be. Kids have to put up with drunk mothers, work in the poppy fields, get doused in chemicals by cartel helicopters, and so much worse. No matter how much joy we get to watch the kids have, it’s constantly clouded by the stark reality of their very existence. Yet, it’s the fact that such true and pure joy is visible through that unjust life that makes Prayers for the Stolen an effective coming of age story.

What disappointed me, though, was that one of the three main characters, María, seems of fades into the background and appear in fewer scenes after the time skip. Your emotional attachment to Ana and Paula begins to outsize that of María, which ultimately weakens the impact of the film’s conclusion. Perhaps this is an intentional way of showing how eventually all young girls in this town fade away or have to end their youth early. But I’m not especially convinced and am disappointed by the diminished effect the ending had as a result.

Prayers for the Stolen is just as much about growing up among the poppy fields and cartel kidnappings as it is about the simple joys of three best friends. The two sides are inseparable and together form a unique type of film that simultaneously leaves you satisfied and utterly hopeless.

Prayers for the Stolen is streaming now on Netflix.


Prayers for the Stolen
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

Prayers for the Stolen is just as much about growing up among the poppy fields and cartel kidnappings as it is about the simple joys of three best friends. The two sides are inseparable, and together form a unique type of film that simultaneously leaves you satisfied and utterly hopeless.