Based on a novel by Jennifer Clement, the Mexican submission for Best International Feature, Prayers for the Stolen, is sure to be one of the prime contenders for the awards. Effectively harrowing, even if its unique pacing may be off-putting to some, this is a nuanced and compelling coming-of-age story, the likes of which we don’t often see.
The film is set in a community stricken by war where young girls live under the daily threat of being kidnapped and sold into human trafficking. The central storyline of the movie is a coming-of-age arc, but it’s anything but standard, as writer-director Tatiana Huezo shows a very different perspective of what it means to grow up.
Obviously, this film offers a lot of social commentary in regards to the issue of human trafficking in Latin America, but what makes this stand out is that it as concerned with the characters as it is with what it has to say. It’s hard for a movie dealing with this issue to feel harrowing without being excessive, but this pulls it off quite well.
The way in which the film is paced is certainly very unique. It’s a ticking time bomb of a movie, and we know that it is going to explode, but when it does, it’s still soul-crushing. Huezo brilliantly builds suspense, alternating between moments of unadulterated childhood joy and the bleakness of this society dealing with human trafficking.
That said, this slower pacing can also work against the film at times. There are long stretches of the movie in which we are just watching the mundanities of life in this village, and then something devastating happens. Although there is a poignancy to these more restrained moments, the repetitiveness may exhaust some viewers.
The two young actresses who play the lead character are both superb. Ana Cristina Ordóñez González and Marya Membreño play the younger and adolescent versions of the character, respectively, and they both embody the role brilliantly. They capture the emotional vulnerability of the character excellently.
This is Huezo’s first narrative feature as a director, and her foundations in documentary filmmaking are clear. The cinematography by Dariela Ludlow does a great job of capturing the harshness of the situation, both in reality and from the youthful, hopeful perspective of the protagonist.
Prayers for the Stolen isn’t a perfect film, but it does what it does very well. Although there are definitely a few sequences that could have spared to be tightened significantly, few audience members will be left unmoved.
Prayers for the Stolen is screening at the 2021 AFI FEST, which runs November 10-14.