Prayers for the Stolen is blunt to the point of crassness and riddled with manipulative cliché.
Making its way over to NYFF after picking up a “Special Mention” in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section some months back, Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen is the sort of movie that thrives at American and European film festivals, though one has a hard time imagining other contexts in which audiences would eagerly seek it out. Undeterred, Netflix has snatched up the U.S. rights to this title, surely with Foreign Language Oscar aspirations (quite possible knowing Academy tastes), and Prayers for the Stolen will soon be granted a life outside the insular festival circuit where it has been praised.
An unsurprising acquisition, Prayers for the Stolen is shot in the competent-yet-undynamic styling that characterizes all Netflix content (one has to guess that a certain tier of independent filmmaker’s visual aesthetic is now beholden to the streaming service’s approved cameras and capture requirements, whether they officially have distribution with them or not), while offering up a Very Political narrative built atop a neutral, humanist ideology (i.e. nothing). On paper a hard movie to deride, Prayers for the Stolen is set in a rural Mexican town mostly populated by women and girls working in opium fields, the male populace largely departed for better-paying work in the U.S. Preying upon this desperation and vulnerability, the cartel controls the region and its people through terror and dehumanizing violence, committing casual femicide and frequently kidnapping young girls for trafficking. Huezo presents her bleak tale (drawn from the 2014 novel by Jennifer Clement) through the semi-mystified perspective of a pre-adolescent girl on the verge of puberty, her coming-of-age placing her in immediate danger of Cartel victimization, but also inevitably spurring on yearnings for adult freedoms her mother won’t allow. Full of manipulative cliché (we’re there to witness the first time this girl menstruates) and standard loss of innocent-isms, Prayers for the Stolen seems to think that it’s re-empowering its young protagonists by removing them from larger sociopolitical context and instead lasering in on their miseries and lost potential (our lead character is naturally fiery and precocious). Blunt to the point of crassness at times, Prayers for the Stolen pretends to grant access to an overlooked story, but instead of provoking, it reassures, the only conclusion it confidently comes to being “cartels are bad.” A comfortable fit within the xenophobic myopia of the festival purview, Prayers for the Stolen isn’t likely to offer much appeal elsewhere.
You can currently stream Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen on Netflix.
Originally published as part of New York Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.