“Prayers for the Stolen” takes place in a Mexican village that has essentially been destroyed by cartels. The young men know they will eventually work for the cartels and it’s worse for the young women. Girls are often kidnapped in the middle of the night, and forced to be slaves for the crime lords. Mothers shave the hair of their daughters to make them look less feminine from a distance and dig holes in which to bury them when the danger draws too close.
And yet the girls in this village want to live. Around the age of eight, three girlfriends, led by Ana (Mayra Membreno), spend time breaking into the homes of the disappeared, trying on their clothes and makeup. Ana’s mother Rita (Mayra Batalla) is furious when her daughter comes home wearing lipstick. It makes her more likely to be kidnapped. Halfway through her film, Huezo time jumps, and a more rebellious 13-year-old Ana is now played by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González. Both young actresses are remarkable, giving such natural, genuine turns that one has to remember that this is a fictional story. Gonzalez is a particularly charismatic find. I hope she gets more work because of the complex, believable choices she makes here.
It helps that so many of the scenes feel captured and not constructed, particularly in the first half when the young girls try to find joy in such a dangerous part of the world. In the second half, Ana becomes increasingly optimistic, especially when she meets a teacher who inspires her to believe that what is upside down can be turned right side up again. I became remarkably invested in Ana’s fate, almost turning “Prayers for the Stolen” into a thriller given how present the threat of violence is in her life. I won’t say if my concerns were founded, only that it’s a testament to the film’s strength that they were so undeniable.
My mind wandered a bit more during the omnibus film “The Year of the Everlasting Storm,” which starts with an intrigue that fades relatively quickly. One of many pandemic projects that we are likely to see over the next year or so, this one asked seven directors to produce seven short films during the pandemic. Produced by a man who knows a thing or two about not being able to leave his house, Jafar Panahi, the film includes shorts by Panahi, Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Laura Poitras, Dominga Sotomayor, David Lowery, and Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, in that order.