Pingyao 2021 review: Noche de fuego (Tatiana Huezo)

Noche de fuego is beautiful and powerful. It tells us something perennial about the fate of women in a violent patriarchy, and hints at something very specific about life in Mexico.”

Set in Mexico’s remote hills, Tatiana Huezo’s Noche de fuego (Prayers for the Stolen) is centered around three girls living in a small town. The film shows them at two different ages: first as pre-teens, and later as teenagers with early womanhood setting in. Ana (portrayed first by Ana Cristina Ordóñez González as a child, then Mayra Membreño as a young woman) is the key protagonist, and the film follows her through a childhood that oscillates between idyllic and dreadful. Life in the town is hard; the men have almost all left to find work elsewhere, and as we learn in Ana’s case, to break off contact and not send money. What remains is a town of calloused women, some older folk, and young children.

But whilst men might be physically absent from the daily family lives of the women and children in the town, the threat they pose dominates everything. Noche de fuego is a story about everyday people, mostly women, playing their cards close to their chest against a backdrop of drug cartel dominance. Not only do the cartels control the lives of the townsfolk, including local quarrying and opium production, they are also free to snatch young women with impunity and return their bodies dead and broken. And therein lies the story of Noche de fuego, as Ana’s mother, alongside other mothers, works to keep her daughter safe from this unspeakable fate: cutting her hair, passing her off as a boy, and forever as a child.

The power of Noche de fuego is undeniable. I can’t think of a setting, nor a story, more important to tell. The cinematography and overall scene-setting is extraordinary at times. Many filmmakers could learn from this film that it is possible to portray the ‘real’ while at the same time thinking through aspects like shot composition. Scenes are framed beautifully, faces are lingered on and enchanting or haunting. There are truly inspired shots, like women standing on the hills above town each night, hoping for a mobile signal to call the absent fathers. One shot of the girls embracing as the camera moves around them. The film at times parallels Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night in showing us the hazy threat and beauty of the night in a powerful way other films haven’t been able to attain, as far as memory recollects. There is a clever trick in a scene where Ana’s mother asks her to name the sounds she hears in the dark – it’s unspoken but one assumes she is attuning her senses not to the sounds of domestic life but to a potentially lurking threat.

The acting is effective and robust. Ordóñez González’s Ana captivates as one of life’s careful but wide-eyed watchers, and when she has her hair cut she looks not unlike a young Faye Wong in Chungking Express. Her mother, as portrayed by Mayra Batalla, wears her emotional wounds visibly but stoically; a woman who has learnt that love won’t save her daughter, but cruelty might.

In the end, however, there is something about Noche de fuego that keeps it from being a great film that could have been one of the year’s best. Having created an extraordinary setting, a powerful and truthfully told existential threat, and having found a way to show childhood continuing to blossom despite everything as an uncontainable force of life, the film can’t find a script that can take it further and deeper. The script is purposefully slender, doing enough in each scene to hint at a narrative arc, but never enough to lodge us in an actual story. I can tell you the things the characters in the film do, but I can’t tell you who they are. The two traumatic events in the film are so gently hinted at that I felt numb.

There comes a point in even the most delicate of films when the script needs to step in and do some of the heavy lifting to tell us just that bit more. And in Noche de fuego there are just too many Chekov’s guns that never fire: we see two extended scenes of the girls trying to read each others’ minds so they can learn to connect at a deeper level, but when one goes missing there’s no resonance. We have a whole sequence about finally standing up to the cartel, but when it happens it’s just very confusing. One of the girls has a cleft palate that is restored later in the film, and one assumes part of the point is that she was safer disfigured and is now at greater risk, but it comes to nothing. We see a machete never used, and even a literal gun that has no scripted purpose other than to hint that a boy is now in the favour of the cartel.

Perhaps the purpose is to always unsettle the audience through a kind of hinting without effect. Perhaps Huezo as a filmmaker wants to put you in a location and show you its story rather than tell you. But I felt frustrated, and perhaps it’s a pet peeve, but I struggle with films that use two actors to play the same character over time (in this case six actors to portray three girls). It is hard not to feel like having watched two short films rather than a feature.

Noche de fuego will be more popular than most on the art film circuit. It is beautiful and powerful. It tells us something perennial about the fate of women in a violent patriarchy, and hints at something very specific about life in Mexico. But it’s a shame that, at least to me, it tells it a little too gently.