Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de fuego) was Mexico’s entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards. The heart breaking film was written and directed by Tatiana Huezo from a novel by Jennifer Clement [affiliate link].
Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de fuego) doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a series of moments seen through the eyes of three girls growing up in a Mexican village. As we live through the shared experiences of these three girls over a period of years from about age 6 to age 13, we see what life is like for them.
There’s minimal dialog and no exposition to explain what’s happening. We just watch how people react to certain events and try to put it together into a coherent story.
The girls’ innocence and games amid the horrors all around them and their growing awareness of the danger they face form the heart of the story.
Ana (Marya Membreño as a teen and Ana Cristina Ordóñez González as a child) and her mother (Mayra Batalla) are the main characters. When the film begins, these two use their bare hands to dig a shallow grave-like hole in which Ana will hide when the cartel men or the soldiers come.
Ana’s friends are Paula (Alejandra Camacho as a teen and Camila Gaal as a child) and Maria (Giselle Barrera Sánchez as a teen and Blanca Itzel Pérez as a child). As children they sing, play guessing games, draw, and watch the natural world surrounding them.
Ana cries when her mother makes her cut her hair. The mother says it’s because of lice, but she really wants to make Ana look like a boy. Paula also gets a short hair cut. Maria, who had a cleft lip, got to keep her hair. Later doctors came through the village and Maria’s mouth and lip were repaired. Her hair was cut short after that, too.
There is food but no money. Many men are gone to find work. There are some men there working in mines. Ana’s father sends back no money. Ana’s mother harvests the poppies, and as Ana grows older she does, too.
Army men with guns come and go. The drug cartels send men for the poppy harvest. Helicopters fly overhead and spray poison – supposedly on the poppies but actually on the village. School teachers, when they can get one, won’t stay a whole year.
The three friends find ways to enjoy living in spite of their situation. They swim, they attend a rodeo, they develop and interest in boys.
However, girls are stolen away regularly – forcefully taken by men with guns. When Ana is 13 and begins to develop, her mother knows that men will come for her, too. The short hair isn’t fooling anyone anymore. That’s when desperate moms have to make a choice. Face certain danger in a place where you have a roof over your head and food or make a run for freedom and safety somewhere else.
Ana is smart. She likes school. She wants to be a teacher. But a future like that is almost impossible to imagine for a child like Ana.
Greed, brutality, and a billion dollar drug trade keep people living in what are basically war zones like where the children in this film live. It’s a traumatic and terrifying way to live created by an insatiable demand for drugs.
This film is available on Netflix.