Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

Prayers for the Stolen is in cinemas now and will be available to stream on MUBI from from April 29. 

Adapted from Jennifer Clement’s 2014 novel, Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de fuego) marks the fiction feature debut of documentary filmmaker Tatiana Huezo (Tempestad, 2016; El lugar más pequeño, 2011). A coming-of-age tale set in a rural community in the south-west Mexican state of Guerrero, it observes three girls across two time periods, five years apart.

In the film’s first half, the girls – Ana (Ana Cristina Ordóñez), Paula (Camila Gaal) and Maria (Blanca Itzel Pérez) – are eight years old and largely unaware of the devastating drug wars that have their mothers living in fear of the girls being kidnapped by the cartels that control the area. In second half, the girls (now played by Marya Membreño, Alejandra Camacho and Giselle Barrera Sánchez) are under no illusions about what happens to young women who attract the cartel’s attention.

The power of Prayers for the Stolen lies in what is suggested or implied: unexplained gunshots in the distance; the military cowering when the cartel drives through town; the exploitative conditions in which the women scrape opium into cans in poppy fields contaminated by insecticide that endangers their health but protects the precious crop. One of the most striking early sequences shows a group of women and children on the outskirts of the town at dusk, trying to contact relatives across the border, mobile phones working like mini lanterns, emitting flashes of piercing light in the darkness.

The mothers don’t openly articulate the dangers the girls face – Ana’s mother Rita reprimands her daughter for playing with lipstick and insists her hair is cut short, in the hope that she will pass as a boy and not seem desirable to the cartel. Only Maria is spared the haircut, apparently in the hope that her cleft lip does not make her an attractive target.

The tears of miscomprehension as Ana’s locks fall to the ground, Ana holding Paula’s hand in desperation, are heart-breaking. Elena, the salon’s owner, pays protection money to keep her business safe and the space functions as site of refuge and intel for the mothers supporting each other in protecting their daughters. Fathers are largely absent from the girls’ lives – some have fled to work in the US, but they don’t always send money to support the family.

The cartel is given little screen time, a faceless entity reduced to the black 4x4s that prowl the landscape – their appearance sounding an alarm for the community. Huezo and her largely female creative team have crafted a poetic and highly memorable film in which the child and adolescent viewpoint takes precedence, showing a world where natural beauty (scorpions, snakes) often masks danger, and friendship cannot always protect the close-knit trio from the threats of the omnipresent cartel.